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5 min read

Osteopathy

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Last reviewed: 20/11/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

In this article

Osteopathy is a type of physical therapy that’s used to find, treat and prevent health problems. Instead of using medicines and surgery, like conventional medicine, osteopathy involves moving, stretching and massaging the muscles and joints.

This is because osteopathy is based on the idea that a person’s wellbeing is affected by how well their bones, muscles, ligaments and connective tissue work together.

It’s common to see an osteopath for back, neck or shoulder pain, and other muscle and joint problems. And there’s some evidence to suggest that osteopathy can help with some of these types of problems.

What can osteopathy treat?

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends manual therapy, like osteopathy, as a treatment option for lower back pain (with or without sciatica) when it’s used along with exercise.

But there's limited evidence to suggest that osteopathy may help with other types of muscle and joint pain, like neck, shoulder or leg pain.

Some osteopaths claim they can treat other health conditions, like asthma and period pain, but there’s no real evidence to support these claims.

How does osteopathy work?

In most countries, osteopathy is known as a complementary or alternative medicine because it’s not based on proven scientific methods. But there’s good evidence that it’s an effective treatment for ongoing lower back pain.

If you choose to try osteopathy, you’ll see an osteopath who will ask you about your symptoms and your general health before looking at your body in a physical examination.

They’ll use their hands to find areas of weakness, tenderness, limited movement or strain within your body, especially the spine. You may need to take off any clothes covering the area being examined, and the osteopath may ask you to carry out simple movements.

They’ll usually let you know if they can help treat your problem and, if so, what the treatment programme will involve.

Even if they can’t help you. They should be able to give you advice on who to see instead, as osteopaths are trained to spot when a patient needs to be seen by a doctor or needs further tests.

What happens during an osteopathy session?

Osteopaths use a mixture of hands-on gentle and forceful techniques to help improve symptoms, like pain. These include:

  • massage – to release and relax muscles
  • stretching stiff joints
  • moving your joints through their natural range of motion
  • moving your spine in short, sharp movements, which normally produce a clicking noise, like when you crack your knuckles

It’s claimed that these techniques reduce pain, improve movement and encourage blood flow.

An osteopathy session shouldn’t hurt, although you may feel some discomfort if you’re having treatment for a painful or inflamed injury. If you feel any pain during treatment, tell the osteopath immediately.

Is osteopathy safe?

Osteopathy is generally thought to be safe, but it’s not suitable for everyone.

You shouldn’t have it if you have a health condition that increases the risk of damage to your spine or other bones, ligaments, joints or nerves. These conditions include:

You should also avoid osteopathy if you’re having radiotherapy or taking blood-thinning medicines, like warfarin.

It’s usually safe to have osteopathy if you’re pregnant, but speak to a doctor or midwife first.

If you have an osteopathy session, you may notice minor side effects, such as:

  • mild to moderate soreness or pain in the treatment area
  • headache
  • tiredness

These effects usually develop within a few hours of a session and typically get better on their own within a few days.

It’s possible to get more serious complications from osteopathy, but this is rare. Such complications include tearing of an artery wall, which can lead to a stroke. These events are more likely if you’ve had spinal manipulation on your neck, but remember that they’re still very rare.

Where can I try osteopathy?

If you’re interested in trying osteopathy, speak to a doctor for advice. They can tell you if it’s safe for you and where to find a properly qualified osteopath.

In some countries, like the UK, USA and Australia, osteopaths are regulated – you can’t call yourself an osteopath unless you’re fully qualified and follow strict guidelines. But this isn’t true for all countries, so ask your doctor for advice before choosing an osteopath.

Key points

  • osteopathy is a type of physical therapy that uses movement, stretch and massage to treat and prevent health problems
  • there’s good evidence that osteopathy is good for treating ongoing lower back pain, but the evidence is less strong for other types of muscle and joint pain
  • osteopathy isn’t safe for everyone - avoid it if you have an increased risk of spine, bone, ligament, joint and nerve damage
  • in some countries, osteopaths aren’t regulated, so speak with a doctor for advice before choosing an osteopath

References

  1. Subacute and chronic low back pain: Nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic treatment [Internet]. Uptodate.com. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available here.
  2. About osteopathy - General Osteopathic Council [Internet]. Osteopathy.org.uk. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available here
  3. Osteopathy - Evidence [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available here
  4. Osteopathy [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available here
  5. Osteopathy | Health Information | Bupa UK [Internet]. Bupa.co.uk. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available here
  6. Osteopathy worldwide - General Osteopathic Council [Internet]. Osteopathy.org.uk. 2020 [cited 18 November 2020]. Available here.
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