Frequently Asked Questions

What is osteopathy?

Osteopathy is holistic approach to health-care that aims to restore function to all of the body’s systems by optimizing the tissues’ alignment and mobility. Osteopathy proposes that when the body’s structures are optimally aligned and mobile, the body can restore and maintain health on its own. Osteopaths use a wide variety of manual techniques to restore alignment, mobility, blood supply to various parts of the body, including muscles, bones, joints, nerves, connective tissues and internal organs.

What problems can osteopathy treat?

Osteopathy was first developed at the turn of the 20th century as an alternative to conventional medical interventions, which at the time were recognized as ineffective and risky, even by doctors. The profession gained popularity because of its success in treating patients with a wide variety of health concerns, such as crippling pain or dysfunction, infectious disease and child developmental delays. In today’s medical culture, physical manipulation is associated with the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders, so most osteopaths are initially consulted for low back pain, neck pain and tension headaches. However, many clients have noticed the improvement of other health concerns following osteopathic treatment, such as headaches, digestive problems, menstrual problems, neurological disorders, etc. and osteopaths are seeing more and more people who come for help specifically for these types of problems. Also, more and more clients are using osteopathy to help them manage and recover from stress, general body tension, anxiety and chronic pain.

What happens during an osteopathy treatment?

During the first treatment, the osteopath reviews and documents the client’s current health concerns and detailed health history. After that, they assess posture and movement using observation and manual (hands-on) examination.  The osteopath uses all of this information to design a unique treatment plan tailored to their client’s needs.

Following the assessment, the osteopath will usually begin treatment, which involves gentle manipulations of various body parts in a variety of positions, including standing, sitting and lying down on a table.  The osteopath may mobilize your joints or ask to do specific movements or contract or relax specific muscles, or may use techniques that involve only a very gentle touch without much movement. The client may be asked to use breathing or visualizations to increase the efficacy of the techniques.

Treatments are usually an hour long but can sometimes take more or less time, depending on the client’s needs. At the end of the treatment, the osteopath will inform the client of what to expect following the treatment and will often suggest exercises to do at home.

Most treatment plans require 3-5 treatments, with a week in between each treatment. Some cases require as few as one treatment, while others require many more than five.

Can osteopathy be used to treat babies and children?

Yes. In general, osteopaths will apply the same treatment methodology and many of the same techniques to children and teenagers as they do to adults, with a few modifications and contraindications for certain techniques. Special methods have been developed for infants and babies and some osteopaths go on to complete advanced training in this field, although most osteopathic training programs include basic training in the treatment of infants and children. Parents bring their babies to see osteopaths for help with reflux, colic, congenital torticolis, breast-feeding difficulties and other issues specific to infant health. Some parents also consult osteopaths to help with the management of developmental delays and neurological disorders.  A parent must always be present in the room during the treatment of any minor.

Are osteopaths doctors?

In most places in the world, osteopaths are not medical doctors. They may not practice restricted medical acts, such as prescribing medication, performing invasive medical tests (such as injections) and diagnosing medical diseases. The one exception is in the profession’s birthplace, the USA, where osteopathy became integrated into the medical system early on in its development. Today, in the USA, osteopathic physicians are trained in osteopathic medical schools and have the same legal privileges and responsibilities as M.D.’s. – they may prescribe medication, order testing, make diagnosis, practice surgery etc.

Is osteopathy covered by my health insurance?

Osteopathy is a service globally offered in the private health care sector, even in countries with a socialized medical system. Many clients have additional health insurance coverage for medical services not provided by the government (such as dental care, vision care etc.) and in many policies osteopathy is included. Please check with your insurance provider to know whether or not you are covered for osteopathic care.

Do I need a medical prescription to see an osteopath?

No, anyone can make an appointment to see an osteopath. Some insurance policies require a medical prescription to reimburse certain services, so please check with your insurance provider if you hope to make a claim for osteopathic treatments.

Does osteopathy actually work? If so, how?

This is a great question! At the moment, there is very little conclusive scientific evidence as to what works, and how. There is a substantial body of evidence to that supports the use of manual therapy in general for the treatment of low back pain, and some countries’ national health systems recommend osteopathy as one possible treatment modality for this particular issue. However, specific research on osteopathic care is very limited, and unfortunately the evidence to support the use of manual therapy to treat other health concerns is not as robust as it is for low back pain. The profession of osteopathy in general remains committed to evidence-based practice, and most osteopathic schools and associations promote research into the effectiveness of osteopathic intervention. However, most osteopathic research has been conducted on a small scale and with little or no funding and has not been extensive enough to provide conclusive evidence about the effects of osteopathic treatment.

Despite the lack of solid scientific evidence to support its efficacy, osteopathy’s popularity continues to grow worldwide, with osteopathic training offered in over 25 countries and at least 15 countries where the profession is legally regulated. The osteopathic approach seems to be effective enough not only to survive, but even to thrive, and there are plenty of  practitioners and clients who can attest to its positive impacts. As for how it works: osteopaths are trained to provide explanations about how their interventions affect the body. However, much more research is needed before we can understand precisely what impacts osteopathic treatment has on health, and what are the mechanisms that explain how and why osteopathic treatment helps people get better.

Are there any risks associated with osteopathic treatment? Can it be dangerous?

Osteopathy is generally considered to be a safe treatment, both by the public and by government regulators and international organizations. Some minor adverse effects such as fatigue, soreness or headache may occur immediately after treatments, but usually resolve in 1-2 days. Certain osteopathic techniques should not be performed when specific underlying health issues are present, but osteopaths who have received proper training will know how to identify contraindications for each technique. In very rare cases, serious complications such as stroke have been linked to certain types of spinal manipulation, most often involving the neck. Some osteopaths prefer to avoid these techniques, and those who use them will perform safety tests that significantly reduce the risks of complications.

I’ve seen a few osteopaths and the treatments I received were very different. Why?

 There may be a few reasons for this. First, in most countries osteopathy is an unregulated profession (the exceptions being the USA, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, South Africa, Switzerland, Finland, Portugal, Iceland and Malta). This means there are no national standards for osteopathic practice or education and no legal requirements for people who want to practice osteopathy. In this sense, the practice of osteopathy is not standardized and therefore the quality of care can vary. That being said, in most places, insurance companies who reimburse for osteopathic treatments require that osteopaths belong to a reputable professional association that maintains a minimum standard of training, ethics and professionalism for their members. 

 Even in places with standards for osteopathic practice, there are still differences in the way osteopaths work. Osteopaths are trained in a wide diversity of techniques and often end up developing their own unique styles. You may find that one osteopath does a lot more physical manipulation whereas another favours very gentle or subtle techniques that some clients even describe as “energy work.” Some osteopaths have received training in other modalities such as physical therapy or massage and will incorporate their additional knowledge and skills in their treatments. Many osteopaths use a combination of techniques and try to adapt their choices to their clients’ needs. What all osteopaths have in common is an adherence to the foundational principles of osteopathy, which are that the body can regulate and heal itself when all of its structures are aligned and moving properly.

What kind of training do osteopaths receive?

In countries where osteopathy is a regulated profession, osteopaths receive graduate level education comparable to basic medical training. In some countries, osteopathy is offered as a course of study in universities or institutes of technology, whereas in other places, osteopathy is taught in private, dedicated colleges. In 2010, the World Health Organization established international benchmarks for osteopathic training that are respected by many osteopathic accreditation organizations, although there is no legal imperative for institutions to abide by these benchmarks. The Osteoapthic International Alliance was created as an umbrella association to monitor the osteopathic profession worldwide and to ensure high standards of practice globally. Its members are professional accreditation organizations from many countries who only accept osteopathic practitioners who have received training that meets the WHO benchmarks.

Where does osteopathy come from?

Osteopathy was founded by Andrew Taylor Still, an American physician practising in Missouri, USA towards the end of the 19th century. Still was dissatisfied with the common medical practices of his era. His determination to improve medical care resulted in a new set of medical principles and practices, which he named “osteopathy.” Using his approach, Still was able to provide relief for patients with challenging medical conditions such as chronic headaches and sciatica. He also known for restoring health to a number of patients with life-threatening infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, dysentery and pneumonia.

What is the difference between osteopathy and physiotherapy?

Physical therapy aims to restore healthy movement and musculoskeletal (MSK) function in a wide variety of contexts. Physiotherapists are most often consulted for MSK disorders, such as pain, reduced mobility and injury, but they may also treat nervous system, developmental, respiratory and other disorders, as well as work in post-operative and rehabilitative settings. Physical therapists are trained to diagnose and apply protocols to treat specific injuries or disorders. In most parts of the world, osteopathic practitioners do not provide specific diagnoses of dysfunctions or injuries but rather to assess the alignment, mobility and quality of all tissues of the body.  A physical therapist will usually exclusively treat the client’s main complaint whereas osteopaths will rarely treat and assess one problem but will rather investigate all of the body’s parts and functions. Physical therapists will often use manual therapy but will also use other modalities such a ultrasound or TENS stimulation, whereas osteopaths work exclusively with their hands. Some osteopaths have previous training in physical therapy and incorporate its techniques and knowledge into their osteopathic practice. The two disciplines can be quite complementary and many osteopaths refer their clients to physical therapists when needed, and vice versa.

What is the difference between osteopathy and chiropractic?

Osteopathy and chiropractic share the same basic principles: both use physical manipulation to restore the body’s alignment in order to optimize its inherent healing capacity. The two professions also have very similar origins: both arose in the USA around the turn of the century, inspired by the same medical, ideological and political cultures. Since then, the two professions have evolved differently. In general, chiropractors tend to prioritize the treatment of spinal misalignments, and are highly trained in using HVLA (High Velocity Low Amplitude) techniques – brisk and sometimes forceful manipulations that can produce a “cracking” sound. While osteopaths sometimes use HVLA techniques, they also draw upon a wealth of other, more gentle/subtle techniques to achieve the same ends. In addition, osteopaths are trained not only to manipulate joints and muscles but also the body’s organs, glands, blood vessels, lymphatic and central nervous systems. Many chiropractors seek training beyond their basic training and many have taken courses in techniques that osteopaths also use, and some osteopaths favour HVLA techniques in their own practices, so in practice chiropractic treatment and osteopathic treatment can seems very similar, although osteopaths tend to take more time with their clients and will rarely have people come in for quick adjustments.