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Osteopathy is a manipulative therapy that works on the body's structure (the skeleton, muscles, ligaments, and connective tissue) to relieve pain, improve mobility, and restore all-round health. Osteopaths believe that we function as a complete working system – our body structure, organs, systems, mind, and emotions are all interrelated and mutually interdependent. Because of this, problems that affect one part of the structural body upset the balance of the body generally, and also the emotions. Similarly, internal problems can reveal themselves in the body's structure as it adapts to accommodate pain, discomfort, or disease.
In Britain over 5 million people a year visit an osteopath, many of them now referred by a doctor. In the United States, where osteopaths are also medically trained doctors, the figure is in excess of 100 million.
Osteopathy was devised in 1874 by Andrew Taylor Still. He trained as an engineer before receiving formal medical training at Kansas City School of Physicians and Surgeons, after which he worked as an army surgeon. He was unhappy with the often brutal medicine of his day, and he felt that stimulating the body's natural powers of self-healing would be preferable. He was interested in the body as a machine and became aware that many illnesses were the result of a misalignment of the body’s structures. Manipulation could restore the balance and cure illness, he believed.
His philosophy was that "structure governs function," a belief that remains one of the basic principles of modern osteopathy. He claimed that tension in muscles and misaligned bones places unnecessary strain on the body as a whole. The initial strain can be caused by any number of factors, such as physical injury, or habitual poor posture, or by destructive emotions such as anxiety and fear. Adjusting the framework of the body would relieve that strain and enable all the systems to run smoothly so that the body would heal itself.
Osteopaths regard the body as a unit, a whole being made up of contributory parts. An abnormality in the structure or reaction of one part exerts an abnormal influence on all the other parts, which in turn affects the whole body. The normal, healthy body contains within itself all the necessary mechanisms for its own defense against injury and infection, and for restoration to normality following trauma. This defense and restoration take place best if the bady is maintained in optimum condition, when there is maximum structural mobility and flexibility.
Osteopathy is therefore aimed at encouraging the body’s internal mechanisms to focus on their own self-corrective function on the imbalance. The osteopath's aim is to correct the dysfunction so that the body is then in a fit state to heal itself. Osteopathic treatment is concerned as much with maintenance as with cure. A regular checkup enables the osteopath to detect and restore areas of dysfunction before they manifest as disease.
Osteopathy employs a wide range of manipulative techniques, varying according to the part of the body being treated. Tight muscles will be relaxed in order that fluids may flow freely, allowing blood to carry nutrients and oxygen to where they are needed, and allowing the waste products in the lymphatic fluid to drain away. Some regions may require gentle, slow, low-velocity touch, while soft tissues and some joints may need flexing or massage. Joints with reduced mobility may require joint mobilization therapy. At all times, however, it is the entire body that is undergoing treatment. The local body area, which is subject to the presenting complaint, naturally receives close attention, but the osteopath also minutely examines the rest of the body for other factors that may predispose or contribute to the complaint.
Assessment begins with the practitioner asking numerous questions and listening to the responses. He or she will then assess body framework and posture, evaluating the way the body functions before checking parts such as the spine, hips, and legs. Joints will be tested to establish how well and with what ease they move, and the osteopath will palpate the tissue as it moves. This is known as active movement testing.
There will also be passive movement testing, which means feeling the body’s response to the movements of sitting, standing, walking, and so on. The way in which movement is restricted can reveal the cause of a problem. The main physical examination is carried out by means of palpation (touch) and movement, and joint testing, but sometimes it may be necessary to refer for further tests or X-rays.
Following this assessment a treatment plan will be discussed and agreed upon before the treatments begin.
There is a wide range of techniques used. However, some osteopaths favour one or more particular forms of treatment.
Osteopathic techniques can be adapted to treat almost anyone of any age or level of health. An osteopath may be asked to treat a patient who is complaining of:
Cranial osteopathy, also known in North America as Cranial Sacral Therapy, is a specialist technique used to manipulate the bones of the skull with a touch so light that many people can barely feel it. Advocates claim it is based on sound anatomical and physiological knowledge combined with palpatory skills that are finely tuned and extremely sensitive qualities of touch.
Cranial osteopathy was developed in the 1930's by American osteopath William Garner Sutherland, a disciple of Andrew Still. His osteopathic training taught him that the bones of the skull, which are separate at birth, grow together into a fixed structure and are immovable, but he noticed that these bones retained some potential for movement even in adulthood. If they could move, they could also be susceptible to dysfunction. With experimentation on himself and others, he discovered that compressing his skull could have severe mental and physical effects. He discovered that the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord fluid had rhythms, which he called “the breath of life,” because the rhythms appeared to be influenced by the rate and depth of breathing. By gently manipulating the skull he found he could alter the rhythm of this fluid flow.
As the bones of the skull are moving normally, the cranial rhythm remains balanced, but any disturbance to the cranial bones can disturb the normal motion of the bones and the cranial rhythm, which, in turn, affects function in other areas of the body. An example of this is the birth process, when the bones of the skull can become disturbed, causing unresolved strain within the cranium. And it is this dysfunction that causes disease and ill-health.
Therapy comprises gentle manipulations using fine, sensitive touch applied directionally, mostly at the cranium and the sacrum, but also elsewhere. The idea is to resolve any compression or distortion of the cranial bones, especially if any part of the rest of the body is deemed to be affected by such compression or distortion.
In any craniosacral therapy, the practitioner begins by working the whole body to tune into the network of connective tissues. There are different positions used in craniosacral therapy, including cranial base release, palpation of splenoid motion, frontal occipital hold, and frontal base hold. This type of therapy helps to improve the movement of the cranial bones. There is no set sequence, and the practitioner works as the movement of the bones dictates. Each position is held while the practitioner applies very light pressure.
Treatment is extremely gentle, and when given by a fully qualified osteopath, it is perfectly safe for almost everyone, from newborn babies to the elderly.
Cranial osteopathy is the backbone of pediatric osteopathy. A cranial osteopath might be asked to treat the following:
Cranial osteopathy is particularly useful in treating patients who are hypersensitive to direct manipulation at the site of their presenting complaint. Hyperactivity in children, feeding problems in infants, and such problems as colic, poor coordination, sleep problems, learning difficulties, and glue ear may respond to treatment.