Osteopathy is a manipulation technique that detects and treats problems with the muscles, nerves and joints.
An osteopath (someone who is registered to carry out osteopathy) will use their hands to find and treat damaged parts of your body by gently stretching, massaging and manipulating the muscles and joints. Osteopaths may also offer guidance on diet and exercise.
This treatment can help to relieve problems such as back pain, neck pain and headache. For a full list, see Who can use it.
Osteopathy is suitable for almost anyone, including children, pregnant women and the elderly.
How does osteopathy work?
The main idea behind osteopathy is that the structure and function of your body are closely linked. This means that any problems or pain associated with the structure of your body could also affect your internal organs.
Therefore, if problems with the structure of your body are corrected, it will ease pain on the outside of your body and help to treat any illness inside your body.
An osteopath will try to identify what is wrong with the structure and function of your body, and restore this to normal. Osteopaths do not use medication or surgery.
Is it effective?
Osteopathy is accepted by many doctors and other conventional healthcare professionals, but there is little scientific evidence to prove that it is effective.
Adverse side effects or complications caused by osteopathy appear to be rare.
Is osteopathy on the NHS?
Osteopathy is only available on the NHS in some areas of the country. If it is available in your area, you will need to be referred by your GP. Your GP may want to use osteopathy alongside more conventional treatments and medicines.
Most people pay for osteopathy treatment privately. Although referral by a GP is not necessary, patients are encouraged to keep their GP and osteopath fully informed so that their medical records are current and complete and the patient receives the best possible care from both practitioners.
Treatment costs vary across the UK, but typically range from £25 to £50 for a 30- to 40-minute session.
How is it regulated?
In the UK, osteopathy is regulated by the General Osteopathic Council. It is a criminal offence to practise as an osteopath if you are not registered with the Council.
How osteopathy is performed
An osteopath will take time to find out about your medical history, and ask about your lifestyle and diet. They will consider each person as an individual.
You will usually be asked to undress to your underwear and perform some simple movements while they examine you.
Diagnosing the problem
Osteopaths have a trained sense of touch and will use their hands to find areas of weakness, tenderness, restriction or strain within your body.
They will make a diagnosis and talk to you about whether osteopathy can help treat the problem and, if so, what sort of treatment programme you need. Osteopaths are trained to identify when a patient needs to be referred to a GP.
When appropriate, an osteopath may refer you for further investigations, such as MRI scans or blood tests, to help diagnose the problem.
An osteopath aims to restore normal joint stability and function to help the body heal itself. They use their hands to treat your body in a variety of ways, using a mixture of gentle and forceful techniques:
- massage - to release and relax muscles
- stretching stiff joints
- articulation - your joints are moved through their natural range of motion
- high-velocity thrusts - quick, forceful movements to the spine.
These techniques can reduce pain and swelling and improve movement in parts of your body. They also encourage the movement of blood to and from your tissues and organs.
An osteopath will sometimes focus on your head and base of your back to encourage the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, which is found in the spinal cord.
In general, the first treatment lasts about 45 minutes, and subsequent treatments around half an hour. You may need two to six sessions.
An osteopath may advise lifestyle changes in order to avoid the problem happening again, such as improving your posture, changing your diet, and doing certain exercises in your own time.
Who can use it
Osteopathy is most commonly used to treat conditions caused by problems with the nerves, joints and muscles, such as:
- back and neck problems - including neck stiffness, lower back pain and sciatica
- carpal tunnel syndrome (a nerve problem affecting your hand and fingers)
- sports or work injuries, such as repetitive strain injury
- joint pain, for example in the shoulder, knee, ankle or elbow joint
- bad posture caused by work, driving or being pregnant
Osteopathy can also be used to relieve general health problems, such as headaches, ear, nose and throat problems, or disorders of the digestive system.
It can also be used on babies and children to relieve colic (abdominal pains) and sleeplessness.