When most people think of osteopathy, they think of bad backs and sports injuries but actually it's a much more comprehensive approach to healthcare. We are interested in the mechanical component of illness and disease. Asthma is a good example of the kind of condition we can help with [see footnote].
In asthma, the ability to breathe is restricted by the accumulation of mucus in the airways. Both of these are triggered by inflammation. Asthma medications mostly work by relaxing the airways or inhibiting the inflammation, but osteopathy has another approach. The expansion and contraction of the chest with breathing is like a pump which draws air into the lungs. It also helps in stimulating the drainage that clears the lungs of mucus, inflammation and irritants like dust particles and viruses. When this pumping mechanism isn't working, these substances accumulate, exacerbating the condition.
I use my hands to try to find and work on any tensions or misalignments that might be compromising normal motion. In asthma I may use gentle stretches to release the ribs and the soft tissues that are restricting them, or I might use gentle oscillatory movements, using the patient's arm as a lever to promote drainage.
In the development of pneumonia, where the lungs end up secreting more fluid than they can clear, we use a similar approach. One study showed that elderly patients who received osteopathic treatment after being admitted to hospital with pneumonia needed less antibiotics and recovered more quickly compared with those who didn't receive this extra treatment. These kinds of results could save the health service a great deal of money.
Ben Katz is The London Osteopath: thelondonosteopath.com
• This article was amended on 29 June 2011 and 1 July 2011 to include the following clarification: A short column in the Inside track series featured an osteopath who said: "Asthma is a good example of the kind of condition we can help with". Several people with asthma and others have contacted us to point out that there is no evidence to show that osteopathy can treat asthma. Martin Robbins, who writes the Guardian's lay scientist blog, says that a comprehensive meta-study conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international network of medical experts, noted that "the few adequate trials to have taken place were poorly reported or too small to draw conclusions from, and concluded that 'there is insufficient evidence to support or refute the use of manual therapy for patients with asthma'." He also states that the trial among pneumonia patients referred to in the article was insufficiently rigorous to show that osteopathy is an effective treatment for this respiratory disease.