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Woman photoI’m often asked, what is osteopathy? The conversation generally proceeds something like this. First of all, I get a pained look on my face and clear my throat before I (lamely) reply that osteopathy is hard to explain. I then stumble around for a few minutes talking about manual therapy and how it improves movement in the body. The person I’ve been speaking with looks puzzled, is still unclear about osteopathy, so I quickly change the topic of conversation. My husband Glenn Guilderson (Dr. Glenn) has been telling me for ages that I need a better explanation for what I do. This blog post (my first!) will be my attempt to explain why osteopathy is so hard to explain!

I won’t go into the whole history of osteopathy but the condensed version is that it is a natural therapy that was started by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still in the early 1800’s. He was a medical doctor in Kirksville Missouri who wanted to find a different type of treatment after a profound personal loss (3 out of 4 children died from meningitis). He called this new method of treatment osteopathy, derived from ancient greek meaning “bone” and “responding to”.

The first misconception about osteopathy that it is simply a manual practice. Although the techniques are performed manually, the concept of osteopathy is actually a philosophy, based on four specific principles (listed below).

  1. Structure governs function. If something in your car breaks down, it can’t or won’t run properly. This is true of our human (anatomical) body as well. All of the structures in the body (bones, muscles, organs, brain, etc.) need to move properly in order for your body to function properly.
  2. The role of the artery is absolute. The health of our circulation system is critical to body function. This includes blood flow through the body, drainage of waste products (lymph) and the cerebrospinal fluid that circulates to nourish our brain and spinal cord. The founder of osteopathy, Dr. A. T. Still felt so strongly about this point he believed that poor circulation was the basis for all disease in the body.
  3. The body is a functional unit. Everything in the body is connected to every other part, nothing works in isolation! For example, sometimes an issue with the head is actually coming from the feet or vice versa. That is why osteopathic manual practitioners feel it is so important to assess and treat the whole body.
  4. The body has an inherent system of autoregulation. Our bodies are miraculous! Whatever we do (whatever abuse we inflict), our bodies constantly adapt to keep us functioning and striving towards optimal health. Even though we are not aware of it, there are thousands of chemical processes and subtle adjustments in temperature or hormone production going on every minute of every day in our bodies, for our whole lives! It already has everything it needs to function perfectly. The body has its own health priorities, we just need to let it do its job.

These four principles are the framework for an osteopath during our treatments.

With these principles as our guide. How do we actually influence, or make changes to the body of our patients? The most important skill that an osteopath possesses (besides knowledge) is an extremely refined sense of touch or palpation. This takes many years to learn and many more years to master. This guides us in finding, as well as treating the problem. The appointment begins with history taking. This gives us a starting point to begin testing and treatment. The real direction of the treatment however, comes from what the osteopath is feeling under their hands as they perform an assessment.

Osteopaths assess and treat all tissues in the body on three levels: mobility, motility and vitality. The first motion, mobility, is big movement in the body, the range of motion of the joints, side bending, rotation, etc. Motility and vitality by contrast are very subtle movements that we are not always consciously aware of in our own bodies, yet they are just as vital to proper function as the big mobility movements. The second type of movement, motility, comes from the circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord. This fluid comes out like a pulse or wave, several times a minute, every minute of every day, for your entire life. As this small wave propagates out throughout the body it creates a constant steady rhythmic movement that can (should) be felt everywhere in the body. The third type of movement, vitality, is an assessment of the inherent health of structures in the body. For example, an osteopath treating a person with a problem that they have had for many years (chronic) may find that the tissues feel dense, with less vitality compared to other areas. An older osteopath said to me recently “it is not enough to restore movement to the tissues of the body, you must also restore vitality”.

The treatment often matches the subtlety of the assessment which is why sometimes there is a lot of movement but at other times, you don’t feel a lot. This is one of the things I love about osteopathy. Each treatment is tailored specifically to your anatomy. It changes every minute, as the treatment proceeds. Hands are all the treatment tools we need. We are constantly adapting, moving and shifting our focus based on what our hands are telling us about the person we are treating.

This means that most people find real benefit from treatment. It also means that it is hard to explain. As I often tell people, if you have heard about osteopathy, or are curious about it, come in and find out for yourself how your body is functioning at all levels, and how much better you can be!

Monique Guilderson MSc., D.O.M.P

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