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What is Osteopathy? 

Osteopathy is a manual therapy that draws on a deep knowledge of human anatomy and physiology to help bring the body’s structures back into optimal alignment and thereby, normal function. 

    It was founded in 1874 by Andrew Taylor Still. He created the American School of Osteopathy (ASO) to train students in the practice of the system he created, and in his book: The Philosophy and Mechanical Principles of Osteopathy, he said that the ASO “does not teach [students] to cure by drugs, but to adjust deranged systems from a false condition to the truly normal, that blood may reach the affected parts and relieve by the powers that belong to pure blood” (Still, 11-12). He went on to explain that osteopaths use manual skills to assess the body and make the adjustments necessary to bring it back into balance. He said that if all the joints of the body were able to move as intended, this would lead to health. 

In general, osteopathy aims to bring the body into alignment to allow movement – both locomotion and the movement of fluids like blood. Restrictions in the body can hinder the flow of blood and the functioning of nerves, which can lead to negative physiological outcomes. Easing these restrictions, therefore, can enable blood flow (as well as the movement of cerebrospinal and lymph fluids), bringing nourishment to (and proper drainage from) the body’s tissues as well as improving the function of the nervous system. The key principles of osteopathy were established by Still and he asserted that rational treatment should follow them. They are: 

 

The body is a dynamic unit of function; 

Structure and function are interrelated; and

The body has its own self-protecting and self-regulating mechanisms

 

            These key principles explain a great deal about osteopathy. The notion that the body is a dynamic unit of function suggests that all the different parts of the body work together as one system. This means that restriction or dysfunction in one part of the body can have a wide-ranging affect on the rest of the body. It also means that a symptom (for example, pain or stiffness) in one part of the body might be a result of dysfunction in another part of the body and could be addressed by treating the dysfunction (which might be in a part of the body far from the area where the symptom is experienced). 

    The idea that structure and function are interrelated means that to have good function, the structures of the body must be aligned properly and able to move freely as they were intended to. Good function relies on the structures of the body being in good working order, and this explains how osteopathy can work through the body to affect more than the physical structure of the body. Optimal alignment of the structures of the body can improve all kinds of functions of the body, including physical, mental and emotional health. It can support the body in its innate self-healing capacity. 

The body’s self-protecting and self-regulating capacity is what osteopathy aims to restore in patients. Still asserted that the osteopath should find and correct restrictions in the body and this would enable the body to carry out its self-regulating functions. He gave this concise advice: “Find it, fix it, and leave it alone. Nature will do the rest.” The job of osteopathic manual practitioners is to enable the body’s natural capacity to seek homeostasis. 

The techniques used by manual osteopaths are numerous, including methods such as joint mobilization, muscle energy techniques, soft tissue techniques, craniosacral techniques and visceral osteopathic techniques. It may seem more intuitive to understand techniques that work with the fascia, muscles and bones of the body because the fact that these parts of the body can move is common knowledge. Craniosacral and visceral techniques tend to be less commonly understood. 

Although Still’s original teachings did not include craniosacral techniques, this approach was developed by one of his students: William Sutherland. This technique is intended to assess and treat the cranial bones and sacrum in order to balance the tension in the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Doing so supports the primary respiratory mechanism of the body, which Sutherland theorized as being a rhythmic motion of the central nervous system structures that is independent of breathing respiration. Sutherland introduced this theory in 1929, and it remains controversial. A conventional anatomy textbook is likely to depict the cranial bones as unmoving, but a deep study of cranial anatomy and the sutures between the cranial bones (as well as the different types of bevels at their articulations) suggests the possibility of movement of these bones. 

Visceral osteopathic techniques involve assessing and treating the visceral organs of the body - another component of human anatomy that the average person might not think of as structures that have their own patterns of movement. This class of techniques go back to the time of Still, and they were documented in books such as those by Carl P. McConnel (one of Still’s students) and Jean-Pierre Barral (a more contemporary author).

The common thread running through all of these types of osteopathic techniques is movement. An in-depth study of human anatomy reveals how the physiological functioning of the body depends on it. Restrictions in the body hinder the flow of fluids such as blood, lymph and CSF as well as the functioning of the nervous system. Osteopathic manual practitioners assess the body to find and treat areas of restriction and use the techniques described above to restore movement and function. 

 

My path to studying osteopathy was inspired by the notion that there are more (and perhaps simpler) paths to health and healing than the mainstream medical system. I was fortunate to benefit from osteopathic treatments and that lit the spark of my curiosity about it. Prior to embarking on this field of study, I was a yoga teacher. This was another practice through which I was able to explore my fascination with anatomy, movement, and the mind-body connection. The opportunity to study osteopathy was actually a byproduct of the collapse of my yoga business during the Covid 19 pandemic. A big part of my motivation to teach yoga and to learn osteopathy is the drive to help others. My own experience of benefiting from these practices after having found little help through the mainstream medical system makes me want to share this with others. This is also because modalities like osteopathy are less invasive, more gentle and (in some ways) more accessible than some of the options available through the mainstream medical system (which can have long wait times). The fact that osteopathy aims to support the body’s natural self-healing capacity rather than imposing more invasive treatments seems intuitively appealing to me. My hope is to build my skills as a manual osteopathic practitioner in order to share this practice and its benefits as widely as possible.

 

~ Elle DeBruin

January 2024

Student # C230313

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