Physical therapists What is an osteopath? August 17 2018
Charlotte Mitchell Author Charlotte Mitchell Health Writer

Osteopathy is a type of physical therapy which promotes a holistic, ‘whole body’ approach to health. Using physical manipulation, stretching and massage, osteopathy aims to improve joint mobility, relieve muscle tension, increase blood flow and encourage healing.

The study of biomechanics (how each part of the body interacts and affects every other part) is a key part of osteopathy. If you see an osteopath with a sore knee, they may also look at your ankles, hips and back, and ask you questions about your medical history. That’s because osteopaths work on the premise that posture, injury, or poor lifestyle habits can have a negative impact on the anatomical structure of our body, which in turn leads to poor physical health. 
Osteopathy is a complementary therapy, which means it’s not part of conventional medicine, but may be used alongside it to help manage certain issues.

What qualifications do osteopaths have?

Osteopathy is one of a number of regulated healthcare professions in Australia. Before they can practice, osteopaths must register with the Osteopathy Board of Australia and agree to comply with their rules and regulations. To become a registered, an osteopath must have successfully completed an accredited five-year, full time university program. 

Can osteopathy help me?

Osteopathy promotes services which may help treat the following conditions:

  • back and neck pain
  • joint pain
  • arthritis
  • tendonitis
  • sprains and strains
  • work and sports related injuries.
A man using a foam roller on his calf

What do osteopaths do?

Osteopathic treatment is based on an understanding of the human body, its structure and function. An osteopath will use touch to investigate the underlying cause of your injury or issue. The treatments usually involve hands-on techniques for the muscles and joints, including:

  • spinal manipulation
  • soft tissue massage
  • joint mobilisation
  • stretching
  • muscle resistance training.

You may also be given information about steps you can take yourself to help improve or maintain your health and wellbeing, including healthy eating and regular exercise, as part of your osteopathic treatment. 

Does research support the use of osteopathy?

Similar to chiropractic treatment, the evidence-base for osteopathy is limited. There is very little high-quality evidence on osteopathy, and the evidence that does exist is not robust and does not clearly prove that osteopathy is effective as a ‘holistic’ approach to certain health conditions. 

Osteopathy does use spinal manipulation, as does chiropractic and physiotherapy, and this has been shown to be effective for lower back pain. However, it has also been found to be no more effective than other commonly used treatments such as exercise therapy. 

Some osteopaths claim the therapy can help treat non-musculoskeletal conditions such as asthma, painful periods, headaches, glue ear, jaw problems and scoliosis (abnormal curving of the spine). However there is limited to no evidence to support these claims. 

It is true there are people who find osteopathy helps them feel better. However, it is possible that this is a result of the ‘placebo effect’. This happens when a person feels better from a treatment because they have the expectation that it will work, not because of the treatment itself. 

Given the lack of evidence, it’s important to discuss with your doctor whether osteopathic treatment is suitable for you. If you do decide to try osteopathy, you can find a qualified practitioner in your area through the Whitecoat website

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Charlotte Mitchell Author Charlotte Mitchell Health Writer Charlotte Mitchell is a health writer and avid foodie. She loves cooking, dancing, music, and spending time with her fluffy dogs. Charlotte is passionate about making sure people have access to high quality information about their health.