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What does an osteopath do?

Have you ever had posture problems, muscle pains or a sports injury? Then you might have been recommended osteopathy. But what does an osteopath do - and how could they help you?

What is osteopathy?

First off, if you're thinking about seeing an osteopath it's a good idea to know what the practice is.

"Osteopaths are musculoskeletal experts who utilise safe and effective manual therapy approaches, together with exercise and health advice, to optimise the health of patients," Tim Allardyce, osteopath and clinical director of Surrey Physio, explains.

Hannah Williams, osteopath and owner of Burton Joyce Osteopathy, adds that the speciality focuses on the health of a person being dependent on the skeleton, muscles, ligaments and connective tissues functioning smoothly together.

"Osteopathy is a holistic therapy in which we assess and treat the body as a whole, looking at the function of the joints, muscles, ligaments, circulation and nerve supply," she says.

"No part of the body can be considered in isolation. For example, a stiff neck may be the root cause of shoulder pain or tingling in the hand, or dropped arches in the feet may be the root cause of an ongoing lower back issue."

What can you expect from your appointment?

Your first consultation will focus on your case history, the nature of your injury, your medical health and general lifestyle, both Allardyce and Williams explain.

Allardyce says: "This is also a time to rule out serious issues, or 'red flags'. After the case history, an examination is performed."

"A physical examination will follow; here your osteopath will assess your posture and mobility and will ask you to perform a few basic movements. They will palpate (feel) the joints and muscles in question to assess for any injury and imbalances," Williams adds.

Your case history and examination will help your osteopath understand how your symptoms developed. A treatment plan will be created after the examination.

Creating a treatment plan

"After discussing your diagnosis and examination findings it is time to develop an effective treatment plan. Every case is different and therefore so is each treatment plan," Williams explains.

Treatment is usually a combination of hands-on techniques including massage, stretching, joint manipulation and exercise therapy.

"If safe to do so, your osteopath will then begin treatment which is usually a combination of hands-on techniques, such as massage, joint articulation and spinal manipulation. They will also provide you with home advice and exercises to carry out in between appointments," Williams says.

"Osteopaths use many different tools and techniques including joint mobilisation, manipulation, stretching, massage, exercise therapy, advice and guidance."

What can osteopathy treat?

People often visit an osteopath for musculoskeletal problems - in other words muscle or joint pain.

Some of the common conditions osteopaths treat include:

  • Acute and chronic lower back pain.
  • Joint pain/strains.
  • Sciatica.
  • Arthritis.
  • Rheumatic pain.
  • Neck pain and stiffness.
  • Muscle spasm and strains.
  • Sports injuries.
  • Shoulder, elbow and wrist pain.
  • Postural dysfunctions.
  • Frozen shoulder.
  • Tennis elbow.
  • Hip and pelvic pain.
  • Knee pain.
  • Fibromyalgia.
  • Cervicogenic headaches.
  • Migraine prevention.
  • Generalised aches and pains relating to pregnancy and postpartum.

When to worry about back pain

Four in five of us have back pain at some point, most commonly in our lower backs (lumbar area...

Is it safe?

Osteopaths must be registered with the General Osteopathic Council by law. The council only accepts registrations from practitioners who have recognised qualifications and who comply with its standards of practice.

They are also recognised as Allied Health Professionals by NHS England, Allardyce explains.

"Osteopaths are trained to degree level and undertake over 1,000 hours of clinical placements at undergraduate level prior to graduation," he says.

"This intensive medical training equips osteopaths with an in-depth knowledge of anatomy, physiology and robust clinical methods examination techniques for the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, neurological systems and abdomen."

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence states that manual therapy, such as osteopathy, can be used as a treatment option for lower back pain and sciatica.

But there's currently no good evidence to suggest it is helpful for conditions unrelated to the bones and muscles, according to the NHS.

However, there are circumstances when osteopathy shouldn't be used.

According to the NHS, it is not recommended when there is an increased risk of damage to the spine, bones, ligaments, joints, or nerves.

People with the following conditions may not be able to see an osteopath:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Fractures
  • Some types of arthritis
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Cancer
  • Multiple sclerosis

How can you access an osteopath?

Osteopathy is rarely available on the NHS, but your GP should be able to tell you if it is available in your area.

"You don't need a referral to see an osteopath privately so you can just call your chosen clinic and book yourself in. Osteopaths mainly work within the private sector; however, there are a small few who still work with the NHS," Williams says.

The cost of treatment varies, but the NHS suggests it typically ranges from £35-£50 for a 30- to 40-minute session.

You can even book an osteopathy appointment privately through Patient Access.

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