In the UK, osteopathy is a popular treatment for low back pain and many other painful and disabling problems. The main difference between osteopathy and conventional approaches to back pain is that osteopathy does not concentrate on medication or medical investigation, but on the way the body is being used.

Osteopathy is defined on the NHS website as “Osteopathy is a way of detecting, treating and preventing health problems by moving, stretching and massaging a person’s muscles and joints.”

To do this, osteopaths used a combination of mobilisation techniques, manipulation, massage, stretching, exercise guidance and advice. They concentrate on the function of the whole body rather than the specific problem a person might present with.

Osteopathy holds that the body has the capacity to health itself if the forces restricting healing are removed, allowing a naturally aligned musculoskeletal system to promote normal well-being. The structure of the body can be encouraged to change the way the body functions.

To do this, osteopaths aim to:

  • Increase or restore joint range of motion
  • Reduce pain and stiffness in joints and muscles
  • Reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation
  • Improve tissue blood flow
  • Improve flexibility of joints and tissues

Back Pain Treatments

  • Spinal mobilisation and manipulation. Osteopathy use mobilisations to ease joint mobility and manipulation to restore movement in joints where injury or misuse have limited the movement available.
  • Cranial Osteopathy. Initially used to treat the head to release energy and fluid blockages, it is now used throughout the body.
  • Muscle energy techniques are active techniques, requiring the patient to do some work to get the best effect. The osteopath resists movement in a chosen position to relax muscle tension which may be limiting joint movement or causing pain.
  • Counter-strain techniques are targeted at the “dysfunction” involving weakness, tightness and imbalance in the body’s tissues. The person is positioned where their tender points are at their minimum and held gently there.
  • Massage can relieve tension, reduce muscle and joint soreness and promote a feeling of vitality and well-being.
  • Advice and exercise programme. What happens after and between consultations is just as important as what happens in the sessions. Osteopaths give patients a programme to continue with so the benefits of the treatment are maintained and extended.

The Consultation

Osteopaths are independent clinicians who are highly trained and can diagnose and treat many conditions without a referral from a doctor or other professional.

The initial appointment will include taking a thorough history of your problems and your health, an examination and review of any scans, x-rays or other investigations.

Treatment will be discussed with you before it commences and varies with the person’s age, fitness and presenting problem. It can vary from soft tissue massage and exercise to manipulation of the lumbar joints.

Treatment will include advice on stretches, exercises, postural correction and specific pain-relieving techniques.

Osteopathy and Back Pain

Back pain symptoms can vary in location from the bottom of the neck to the coccyx and may be due to a huge number of different causes. Pain may come on quickly (“a slipped disc”) or slowly over some years due to repeated stresses and strains. Symptoms may include all kinds of pain from a mild ache to severe disabling pain, numbness and pins and needles.

Typical back pain symptoms for which people consult osteopaths include:

  • Sciatica. This is severe leg pain in specific areas of the leg, often into the foot. Can be in younger or older people for different reasons.
  • Acute back pain. Usually due to a stressful event or sudden movement or lift, acute back pain is recent and is very common.
  • Chronic back pain. Chronic back pain is back pain which has been present for over six months and may be mild or severe.
  • Rheumatic joint pain. Arthritic conditions such as ankylosing spondylitis and rheumatoid arthritis present differently than standard back pain. Severe morning stiffness and the involvement of other joints may occur. Patents with these symptoms will be referred to a rheumatologist.
  • Pregnancy back pain. Back pain and sciatica are common in pregnancy and osteopathy’s gentle approach is well suited to treat this.
  • Sports injuries may cause back pain due to collisions, falls and twisting injuries such as in rugby, judo or football.
  • Osteoarthritic back pain is common in elderly people and can be eased by soft tissue techniques and advice.

When Should I See an Osteopath?

The sooner you get help with back pain, the easier it is to solve the underlying problem and make sure the problem doesn’t get “stuck” in the body. It’s much harder to help someone who has had back pain for years than someone who’s back pain is very recent.

Do I Need a GP referral to see an Osteopath?

No, like physiotherapists and chiropractors, osteopaths are independent clinicians and qualified to see anyone who books an appointment with them. If you intend to pay by using private medical insurance you should check with them first to make sure that osteopathy is covered by your policy. Most policies do cover osteopathy but some do require a GP referral before they will cover you.

The Risks of Osteopathy

Like the other manual therapy professions, osteopaths are highly trained to recognise the risks of treating certain conditions with particular techniques. Due to the gentleness of osteopathic treatment, it is common for no side effects to be felt. In some cases there may be soreness for a day or so after manipulation, but severe after-effects are very rare and osteopathy is a safe form of therapy.

How do I know my Osteopath is Qualified and Registered?

Along with physiotherapists and chiropractors, to use to the term “osteopath” you have to be qualified at a named institution and be registered with the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC). So you can be sure that your practitioner is safe and highly skilled.

Can I Get Osteopathy on the NHS?

There are some osteopaths who work in the NHS but very few. Most osteopaths are private practitioners.

How do I find an Osteopath near me?

To find an osteopath near you, you can search here in Local Osteo by putting in your location or postcode.