Osteopathy was developed in the 1870s by an American frontier physician, Andrew
Taylor Still. Still’s initial premise was that the human body has a lot
in common with a machine, and therefore should function well if it is mechanically
sound. His treatments, which centered around manipulations to improve circulation
and correct altered mechanics, quickly gained a reputation for being efficacious,
and in an era when undergoing surgery was a very risky and terrifying experience,
the non-invasive nature of the therapy was a big bonus. In 1892 he opened the
American School of Osteopathy, and through the network of graduates quickly
spread throughout the USA and to the UK. The first school of osteopathy in
Britain was established in London in 1917.
Osteopathy is a system of diagnosis and treatment, usually by manipulation,
that mainly focuses on musculoskeletal problems (though a few schools claim
benefits across a wider spectrum of disorders). Osteopathy differs from chiropractic
in its underlying theory that it is impairment of blood supply and not nerve
supply that leads to problems. Osteopaths use their hands both to diagnose
and to treat abnormalities in the way the body is working. This manipulation
of muscles and joints are designed to reduce stiffness and tension, and so
to help the spine move more freely. Proponents of osteopathy believe that a
freer, more relaxed musculoskeletal system improves both blood and lymphatic
circulation and thus promotes the body’s own natural healing processes.
This approach emphasizes the relationship between body structure and function,
and it focuses on the whole patient (mind, body and soul), rather than just
on the symptoms.
In the UK, osteopaths are regulated by statute, the statutory regulatory body
being the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC). GOsC regulates, promotes and
develops the profession of osteopathy, maintaining a Statutory Register of
those entitled to practise osteopathy. Only practitioners meeting the high
standards of safety and competency are eligible to join this register. Proof
of good health, good character and professional indemnity insurance cover is
also a requirement. GOsC also deals with patients’ concerns and complaints
relating to osteopaths, and has powers to act against osteopaths who fall short
of the high standards of conduct and competence required.
Osteopaths undertake a demanding four to five-year honours degree program covering
anatomy, physiology, pathology, biomechanics and clinical methods, underpinned
by thorough clinical training. Like chiropractors, osteopaths do not think
of themselves as complementary practitioners, and prefer to call themselves
primary healthcare practitioners.
Osteopathy is generally well recognised by the medical profession, and is made
available in over a quarter of GP practices.
Although in the UK osteopathy is mainly used to treat spinal and other joint
problems (The Royal College of General Practitioners recommends manipulation
for acute and sub-acute back pain), there is some evidence (though mostly anecdotal)
that it is useful in the treatment of conditions such as slipped disc, arthritis,
lumbago, sciatica, neuritis, rheumatic aches and pains, tension headaches,
postural defects, sports injuries, digestive disorders and menstrual pain.