(first published in the Southwold Organ, August 2014)
When I was an adolescent, my GCSE history teacher always used to say to me, “if you want to understanding something, look at where it came from”. I went on to do a degree in Archaeology in an attempt to understand who, what and more importantly, how we came to be. After studying the past, I was left with a sense of urgency to effect people in the present, to do something that really improved quality of life. As I got deeper into Osteopathy, I became inevitably fascinated in the roots of my profession.
Osteopathy was founded in 1874 in Kirksville, Missouri, USA. If you can take yourself back to those beloved Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer stories and you have the right time and place. In fact the author, Mark Twain, was a strong advocate of Osteopathy in those early years. The consideration of why and how Osteopathy began, informs us as to how we can best use it today, and how you can benefit from the ideas behind the treatments.
The author of Osteopathy was a physician and surgeon called Andrew Taylor Still. He became disheartened with the practice of frontier medicine with its emphasis on cure-alls and bleeding. After he lost his 3 children and wife to a meningitis epidemic he became determined to find a better way to treat illness. Influenced by the cultural milieu of his time and hours studying anatomy via dissection, he discovered something quite original and important. He discovered that the health of the body and its ability to resist disease was intimately related to its structural integrity. Conversely, how we use our body will determine its structure. So the structure and function of the body are intertwined.
This is a difficult concept to grasp, because it seems so alien to the general way in which we think about the causes of illness. In this way, Osteopathy is principally concerned with improving the health of the body, rather than directly fighting disease, and has a very important role to play in people’s quality and quantity of life. The body has the ability to heal itself, the role of the doctor in this sense, is to remove the obstruction to that mechanism.
Many of us in Suffolk enjoy gardening, and we can liken the process of bringing on healthy plants to help us understand Osteopathic thinking. A young fruit tree will become diseased and ill if it lacks the proper nutrition, hydration and climate, much like a person requires good food and a healthy lifestyle. Often, the plant requires structural support, like us humans. Osteopathy aims to do this by manipulating the person into a better shape, allowing normal movements to occur, and supporting this change with strengthening and stretching exercises. The growth of the young tree is assisted by a post to maintain its posture. So as the twig is bent so the branch will grow. The human body is similar. We pick up various strains and injuries, which are often unresolved. The body compensates for them, and our overall posture becomes distorted. Just as the diseased plant will recover when it is properly fed, supported, and looked after, we do the same.
So we can appeal to the overall structure and function. The body can be realigned by using gentle corrective manipulations to retrace these steps, and if it is done well, we stand, sit and move better. Think of a chair with one of its legs placed in the middle rather than at a corner. The structure cannot function as well when strain is put upon it, and similarly when we too have body parts which are in less optimal positions, our function suffers. That includes our movements, our respiration, our oxygenation, our circulation and beyond.
Lastly, its important to say that Osteopathic thinking does not necessarily always involve manipulation of some kind. It might also include improving your diet, recolonising the gut with good bacteria, buying some more comfortable shoes, or ergonomically improving your work desk. If we improve how we function then we will improve our structure. In this way, osteopath and patient work together to promote natural processes and encourage health. There’s so much we can do to make life healthier and more enjoyable and in a sense, more osteopathic.