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.