I often get reminded of how little people know about traditional osteopathy and its benefits, even within our own profession of D.O.s (Doctors of Osteopathy) and D.O. students. I recently helped teach a lab for medical students on osteopathic techniques. One of the students in my group mentioned he had had a number of concussions in the past. “Osteopathy can’t help with concussions, can it?” he asked me. A jolt of surprise hit me – and I was reminded again. Even in the training ground of future D.O.s at a great osteopathic university, the knowledge of our tradition had not perfused through and found its home in people’s world view of medicine. Undramatically, I turned to the student, and replied, “Yes, it can.”
Who can benefit from osteopathy?
Let me paint some common pictures of people who come into our office: an athlete who hurt his knee in action and was told he was not a surgical case, but can’t return to his sport due to pain and stiffness; a 35-year-old woman who underwent back surgery for a disc herniation and is still in terrible pain; a middle-aged woman who was rear-ended in a motor vehicle accident and has not felt like herself since, with trouble concentrating and sleeping and increased anxiety; a 4-year-old boy who has chronic ear infections and has been through several rounds of antibiotics – but the infections keep happening; an infant who is having trouble latching, and is fussy and colicky and won’t sleep; a 30-year-old woman who had a concussion 4 months ago and is still suffering headache, overstimulation and sensitivity, and can’t return to her work; a 28-year-old pregnant mother in her third trimester with shooting pain down her leg; a 70-year-old male with trigeminal neuralgia following dental work…
A wide range of people come to osteopathy and get relief of their symptoms and receive great benefit. Many of the patients we see have already been through an assortment of treatment modalities, and have had mainstream medical workups, but have not found the level of improvement they are after. Osteopathy can often offer a missing piece in a patient’s journey back to health.
What we offer is a direct, real-time assessment of the whole body, as it is in our office at that moment. With our hands, we can perceive what is happening in the body, where things are getting stuck or restricted, and where strains are pushing or pulling on the structures of the body. Just as our minds have a memory of important events that have happened, the physical body holds memory of things it has been through, and this memory is stored in the tissues and can be felt by a trained osteopathic physician. It’s as if the body were a history book presenting its past events in detail, just waiting for someone to come along and read it. When those details are “read” by the hands of an osteopath, the osteopath can balance the tissue and help unwind the old injury or strain pattern.
So often we see patients in our office who have been through a traumatic injury of one kind or another, but their imaging studies (X-rays or MRIs etc) might not show any abnormalities. The patient, however, is still in pain, or knows something isn’t right. This is when the osteopath can put his hands on the body and directly feel the injury patterns or tissue derangement that is present. This can be very validating to the patient just by itself. And then the osteopath can work the tissue to help these patterns dissolve. When the structure changes, the patient often feels their symptoms improve.
So the answer to the question “who benefits from osteopathy” is: almost everyone. This is because the trained physician will listen to the patient’s body and use only the amount of force needed for that patient. A 60-year-old construction worker may require a lot more force in a treatment than a slightly-built 6-year-old girl. Once the proper communication is made from the hands of the osteopath to the body of the patient, the patient’s body picks up the queue and starts generating its own healing response and its own unwinding.
Osteopathy is safe enough to treat babies a few hours old, and safe enough to treat high-risk patients in a hospital ICU – as I did for years. On the other hand, it is powerful enough to treat injuries that are totally entrenched and decades old. It is in a unique position to free up the body and encourage deep healing in a wide range of people and with a wide range of conditions.