What is Osteopathy?

Osteopathy is a branch of medicine concerned with diagnosing, treating, preventing and rehabilitating individuals with disorders of the musculoskeletal system. Another holistic therapy, osteopathy looks at the affect the disorder has on the patient’s overall health and well-being.

Neither drugs or surgery are encouraged by osteopaths who in fact believe the body can be encouraged to ‘right’ itself through either one single treatment, or a variety of applications, to the musculoskeletal system.


The approach is very much patient-centred whereby the patient is encouraged to reveal much about their entire lifestyle, taking into account hobbies, physical activities, working life, nutritional intake and psychological well-being, as well as their current and past medical history to date.

Osteopathy doesn’t focus on the patient’s symptoms but rather looks behind them to discern which parts of the body has caused the symptoms (pain) in the first place. All ages and types can benefit from osteopathy including a newborn infant, geriatric patients, pregnant women and athletes.

The osteopath treats his patients through manually guiding particular parts of the body. This may at times involve restricting certain muscle movements or pushing and pulling against particular joints.

What to expect from an Osteopathy Session

At your first consultation – which should last around 45 minutes - you will be asked to help the osteopath make a diagnosis by relating a full case history of your symptoms and volunteering information regarding your current lifestyle, working life, diet and any major events in your life (both past and current).

Your osteopath may ask you to remove some of your clothing (usually down to your underwear) and to walk or move in a fashion which highlights the problem area you are seeking help with. They will also be seeking to analyse your posture and general gait.

He or she will then attempt to identify any particular strain or weakness in the body by means of touch (called palpation) and physical manipulation to see the reason for the pain or sensitivity in the first place.

Osteopathy session

Your pulse and blood pressure may also be taken during this consultation and your reflexes checked. In the event the osteopath is concerned about a fracture or other complication you may in fact be referred for an x-ray and advised that osteopathy wouldn’t bring you any benefit.

The osteopath will outline a treatment plan for you and advise on how many sessions they believe is necessary (further sessions usually take around 30 minutes). Advice will also come in the form of any diet and lifestyle changes which the osteopath feels would help your problem and prevent its recurrence in future. In the event the osteopath feels he cannot help you a GP referral will be made.

Manipulations made by an osteopath vary depending on the age of the patient, their level of fitness and the nature of their diagnosis.

Treatment more often than not tends to consist of soft tissue massage, cranial techniques, stretching, joint mobilisation and joint articulation. There may also be suggestions for exercise which can be carried out in your own leisure time or at work.

Effects and Benefits of Osteopathy

No drugs are used in the treatment of osteopathy which is viewed as an alternative therapy and one which is regarded as a ‘natural’ treatment.

As a practice it can be used to diagnose, manage, treat or prevent musculoskeletal problems and other related disorders.

The most common conditions to benefit from the application of osteopathy include severe chronic or intermittent pain hitting the back or neck. Difficulties with posture and walking are also commonly helped. Other complaints osteopaths deal with are injuries received from sport, deterioration of the joints or muscles, and problems caused by restricted movement or through unhelpful working practices.

A number of osteopaths can also assist with other disorders such as ear infections or asthma in children as well as menstrual pain in women. This is because realignment of the spine can ease and, in some cases, prevent pain altogether.

Practitioners say everyone can benefit from an osteopathic treatment - not just sportsmen who repeatedly put stress on muscles and bones thereby suffering both chronic and acute injuries.

Those with a sedentary office job may be just as much in need of a session of physical manipulation. This is because back pain traditionally derives from poor posture and can be exacerbated by sitting for long periods at a desk, often resulting in strain to the neck as well.

Arthritis in particular can be greatly helped by treatment, so too can other forms of joint pain such as that experienced in the hips and shoulders due to ageing. Not only can osteopathy sooth pain but it can also lead to a greater flexibility of movement.

Pregnancy can be eased by osteopathy. The soothing manipulative strokes of the therapy can relax the mind, help with aches and pains and improve digestive function.

A list of specific – but by no means limited - conditions which can be helped and indeed ‘cured’ by osteopathy are:

  • Lower back pain
  • Joint pain and arthritis
  • Sports injuries
  • Muscle deterioration
  • Generalised aches and pains
  • Headache arising from the neck (cervicogenic)
  • Frozen shoulder and tennis
  • Circulatory problems
  • Cramp
  • Digestion problems
  • Sciatica
  • Muscle spasms
  • Neuralgia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Inability to relax
  • Rheumatic pain

Professional Bodies & Organisations

General Osteopathy Council

The General Osteopathic Council (GOsC) is responsible for regulating the practice of osteopathy in the UK. It promotes patient safety by holding a register of all qualified practitioners in the UK and promotes and maintains standards together with the conduct of its members. It also investigates patient complaints and can remove osteopaths whom it believes has breached general standards. The council ensures osteopaths keep up with education and ongoing developments within the practice.

Osteopathic International Alliance (OIA)

Promotes the benefits of osteopathy and seeks to encourage its practice internationally. Discusses osteopathy in a worldwide context and encourages partnerships with relevant organisations. The Alliance is heavily involved in sponsorship activities and in delivering educational forums

The General Council for Massage Therapies

The (GCMT) is the governing body for massage therapies and all bodyworks and soft tissue techniques in the UK. The GCMT is a non-profit making organisation initially established by the major professional associations in massage therapies (including the Sports Massage Council and the Association of Physical and Natural Therapists (APNT) with shared aims of raising public awareness and professional standards, and ‘To act as a unifying body by bringing together organisations engaged in representing or teaching massage therapies, all bodyworks and soft tissue techniques’.

British Institute of Musculoskeletal Medicine (BIMM)

Formed in 1992, the BIMM is an amalgamation of the British Association of Manipulative Medicine and the Institute of Orthopaedic Medicine. The institute aims to promote education and research in the field of musculoskeletal medicine ultimately for the public’s benefit. It encourages research, promotes widespread knowledge and lobbies the NHS for further recognition of the subject.

Fascinating Facts

  • The father of osteopathy is regarded as Andrew Taylor Still MD, DO. The physician, surgeon, author and inventor founded the American School of Osteopathy (now AT Still University in Kirksville, MO) in 1892
  • Three of Still’s children died from spinal meningitis in 1864, causing him to shun orthodox medicine of the day and concentrate on alternative methods
  • Still was one of the first doctors to suggest focusing on the patient’s disease rather than his or her symptoms
  • In Canada and America manual osteopaths are banned from providing joint manipulation and diagnosis
  • Research has shown that spinal manipulation provides relief from lower-back pain for up to three months while its pain-relieving effects can last for up to one year
  • In the UK the Osteopaths Act was introduced in 1993. As a result, the General Osteopathic Council was established to regulate patient care and the registration of osteopaths
  • Osteopaths have the same legal rights regards regulation as doctors and dentists
  • The first school of osteopathy in the UK was set up in London in 1917 by John Martin Littlejohn - a pupil of Stills
  • There are around 4000 registered osteopaths in the UK
  • The London College of Osteopathic Medicine teaches the subject only to individuals who are already doctors
  • Osteopaths who have been trained outwith the UK have to sit an assessment test and work supervised for 12 months prior to being allowed to apply for registration with the NHS
  • All osteopaths in America are already registered doctors
  • More than seven million osteopathic consultations are carried out in the UK every year with 95 per cent of those handled within one week of enquiry
  • More osteopaths – 85 per cent – practice in England than in other areas of the UK
  • Osteopathy is available on the NHS in some areas of the UK but not everywhere due to the fact it is postcode dependent