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The Story of Osteopathy

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

Where did Osteopathy come from?

Unlike most professions the origin of Osteopathy is actually attributed to one man!

Back in the 1800’s a young American man called Andrew Taylor Still was a surgeon and medical practitioner. He had followed the footsteps of his own father into medicine and it was his father who tutored him in his medical apprenticeship.

Unfortunately for Still, the 1860s brought with them the American Civil War. Still found the experience of treating the wounded in the civil war to be very difficult and after getting through this, he suffered the devastating loss of three of his children to spinal meningitis.

Still started to question the practices associated with medicine at the time and wondered if there were a better way. He wanted to focus on treating the root cause of the problem, as opposed to just treating the symptoms.

The Lightning Bone Setter

Still started to practice a new approach, focusing on treating the musculoskeletal system to help make the body more immune to diseases. Initially, he was largely criticised, but as time went on Still gathered a reputation for relieving all sorts of problems and he became known as The Lightning Bone Setter!

His popularity soared and also that of the new system of treatment he used, which he named Osteopathy. He build his first school the 'American School of Osteopathy' in 1892 (now A.T. Still University) in Kirksville, Missouri. This school still trains osteopaths today.

The Osteopathic Principles

Modern ay Osteopathy is built on four clever principles established by Still. These are taught to all osteopaths today and underpin our treatment techniques. I use them everyday in practice and find them a great way to explain why I have chosen to use a particular technique:

1) The body is a unit

This means that everything in the body works together and that an individual part has the capacity to affect any other part of the body.

For example; if you have sprained your ankle, you may well get back ache because you cannot use your ankle properly and have to use other parts of the body to compensate for this. Not putting weight through your ankle could mean you lift your leg from your hip (osteopaths call this hip hitching!) and this new demand on your hip and back muscles could result in a tired sore muscle and restricted movement of the accompanying joints.

2) Structure governs function

Just like in the example above, when there is a structural issue, this can affect how well the body then functions, for example, damage to the ankle structure means the ankle cannot function properly and you stop using the muscles that move the ankle. With muscles it really is a case of use it or lose it! So not using these muscles means they will get smaller (or waste) and lose power. This then means you have weaker muscles and you cannot move the ankle with as much strength as before. Furthermore you might use different muscles to compensate and these may increase in strength, or become painful from an increased demand that they are not strong enough to match.

3) The body is its own medicine cabinet

This is a lovely principle because it also recognises the brilliant healing mechanisms that your body uses all the time! For example; increased body temperature during an infection means that viruses and bacteria die, which frees your body from infection.

Of course, oftentimes the body needs a little help to heal in the way it wants to. Returning to the example of your ankle earlier, sprained tissues can lay down emergency scar tissue quickly in order to get the ankle to a point where it can “get by”. This is actually a very sensible thing to do when you consider that in pre-historic times humans were hunted and couldn’t spend a long time waiting for ligament tissue to re-build. Ankle sprains can also disrupt communication between the brain and the ligaments in the ankle resulting in recurring sprains.

For a sprained ankle, once the acute phase (that bit when your ankle is the size of a balloon) is over then soft tissue therapy can encourage re-modelling of scar tissue to fully functioning ligamentous tissue. Specific balancing exercises help the brain to re-establish proper understanding of where the joint is in space (proprioception), as well as strengthening the muscles around the joint and this prevents further injury. Do you see how with instruction and hands on work, your body does the healing but your osteopath gives the directions?

4) The rule of the artery is supreme

Blood carries all of the nutrients and important things that your body needs: oxygen to give energy, proteins for repair and immune cells for protection. Blood also removes the waste products of metabolism. So without blood, healing, repair and proper function is difficult! Almost 100% of hands on techniques encourage an increased blood supply, so that you can benefit from this. That’s why after treatment, the areas touched can feel warm!

Modern day osteopathy

Osteopathy is always progressing and moving forward, but even though it’s a long time since A.T. Still put together the osteopathic principles, they still (mostly) ring true. A recent update of the osteopathic principles is that as well as structure governing function, we understand that function also governs function! For example, overuse of an unstable joint can lead it to develop arthritis.

For myself, I find these concepts very interesting and intelligent, especially considering Still came up with them hundreds of years ago! These days Osteopathy works more side by side with modern medicine rather than as an alternative, and I think that is great, but I also really appreciate the idea that we all have it within ourselves to heal a lot of our ailments, we just may need a little nudge, which is where Osteopathy comes in.

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