What even IS osteopathy?!

For a long time now I have constantly been asked – “so what actually is osteopathy?”, “what does an osteopath do?” or “what’s the difference between physio and osteo?” or countless variations on this theme. Let me try and shed some light on our somewhat mysterious profession.

Or, if you haven’t yet seen this entertaining otter video, click here.

Osteopaths know bodies. They know anatomy, physiology, how everything works and how everything’s connected. They understand all of this in a scientific and practical way. Osteopaths complete a 5 year university degree and are registered and regulated by AHPRA in Australia. They must complete 25 hours of professional development every year. Whilst still a small profession, Osteopathy is one of the fastest growing health professions in Australia.

What can osteopaths help with?

Osteos can help with injuries and/or pain pretty much anywhere (feet, knees, the pelvis, arms, hands, heads, sinuses, jaw, ribs, you get the idea), but it’s not just about pain. Osteopaths have a distinct knack for looking at overall patterns in your body. From the first moments at uni we are taught to think and work this way. It’s quite common for pain to be presenting in one place but for there to be an issue/imbalance/old strain/something happening somewhere else which might be why this nagging injury/pain doesn’t go away. Sometimes this is why people get results from an osteopath where they haven’t had as much success from other allied health professionals. We’ve taken our blinkers off. 

What’s the difference between osteo/physio/chiro?

There is definitely overlap when it comes to the manual therapies (osteo, physio, chiro, myo… someone should write a song about this…). We all have the same end game. We want to help people feel better! We treat injuries and educate people on management and prevention. We are all educated in the same topic – the human body. It’s the techniques and approach that differs.

Even within these professions there can be a lot of variation in individual practitioner technique. So always make sure you speak with your practitioner if you don’t feel like you’re getting where you want to be, because they should be able to adjust some treatments or maybe even refer you to someone who might work better for you. As osteopaths we often work with other modalities (physios, myotherapists, exercise physiologists, naturopaths, dietitians, GPs) to provide the best care possible. I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to delve too far into how each profession works because I am biased in my preference for Osteopathy. Here are the appropriate pages of their association websites for you to find out more: PhysiotherapyChiropracticMyotherapyExercise PhysiologyNaturopathy. I do though always tell people, you have to find a practitioner that works for you

Within Osteopathy there are some large differences with how some practitioners work. Namely the use of craniosacral therapy. Cranial (or craniosacral) osteopathy involves further study beyond the university degree and not all osteopaths practice this way. It is a very gentle, subtle form of treatment attending to restrictions that may be felt on a deeper, cellular level. To see a practitioner that works this way, it is best to ask the clinic you are booking with as they will have specific practitioners who do this.

What will an osteopath do in a session?

Osteos, are great at seeing patterns and areas to strengthen or to free up. Treatments can be quite variable depending on who you are and what is being addressed. There will always be an initial assessment involving looking at how you stand, move, sit, and breathe. The treatment could then be a combination of massage, stretching, resistance work, HVLA (manipulation or cracking – HVLA is osteo speak for high-velocity-low-amplitude), trigger point work, dry needling, counterstrain (a very gentle release technique which encourages tissues into their position of ease), fascial treatment (see next paragraph), taping and of course education on positioning, movement, posture, and how your body is functioning. Treatment may be firm or gentle, depending on who you are and what is most effective for you.

Osteopaths assess and treat some more subtle yet important things about the body as well. Fascia is a good example. Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds muscles and organs. It is there to support, stabilise, reduce friction and can come under tension as other connective tissue can. Osteopaths can provide treatment to reduce stress to areas of fascial tension which will then have a flow on effect to relieve pressure and tension to the rest of the musculoskeletal system. This can feel like stretching or soft tissue work with a slightly different focus. Osteopaths also think about how the musculoskeletal system may be affecting organs when treating. For example breathing dysfunctions are very common, and easily addressed with focus on treatment of the diaphragm, neck and thoracic spine. Digestion can be addressed with work through the lower back, diaphragm and pelvis.

Do I have to take my clothes off?

Certainly not if you don’t want to. We will often ask you to take your top off (leaving your bra on if wearing one) so we can look more close at your spine and back, but if you’re not comfortable with this, it’s definitely not essential. We can treat with pressure, stretching, manipulation and other techniques without having to massage if you would prefer. On the flip side, if you’re comfortable then we may use cream to massage the area needed. 

Who usually sees an osteopath?

Osteopaths mostly work in private practice but can occasionally be found in community care settings or hospitals on patient request. The Australian osteopathy model is close to that in the UK, and quite different to the US model. We work with a huge range of people; sporting teams, athletes, active people, not-so-active people, women during pregnancy, children, people with injuries, those with niggling pain, people wanting to prevent injury or dysfunction, musicians, performers, the list goes on! Whilst our ability to help is vast, we also understand the limits to our scope of practice. If an osteopath finds reason, they will refer you back to your GP or other specialist for further assessment as, as much as we would like to, we can’t help with everything.

How often do you need to see an osteopath?

This entirely depends on why you’re seeing one. But, usually, After an initial 1-3 treatments to make change to any acute pain or injury, maybe one week apart, treatment will be spread out further with advice and education to allow you to manage yourself in between. So you might have an appointment two weeks in a row, then one in a fortnight, maybe another, then in a month, and if by this time you feel good, are confident with what your body needs and how to manage things, you can come as you need. Some people prefer to have monthly or six weekly sessions, and this is absolutely ok, and totally up to you. We will not say you need treatment when you don’t, and we will make the plan clear from the get go.

I have a question!

Great! Please email us or give us a call. It’s hard to cover everything because there’s a lot and I know you probably need to take a breather by now. 

So thanks for reading, I hope this has cleared up some mystery behind what we do.

Oh and yes, ‘osteo’ does mean “related to the bones”, but we work with everything in the body. Our skeleton provides the scaffolding and support for the rest of our systems, one system affecting the next and then the next.