A common question I’m often asked is, “What exactly is an osteopath and what do you do?” The most straightforward answer? Think of us as engineers for the human body! We evaluate how your body functions from a ‘mechanical’ standpoint, with the goal of identifying, treating, and preventing health issues within your musculoskeletal system. This term is frequently shortened to MSK and encapsulates anything affecting your joints, muscles, or nerves.
MSK problems are widespread and back pain is the most prevalent, impacting 60% of the population. In fact, it accounts for 11% of the total disability in the UK population each year. Astonishingly, most back pain isn’t caused by injuries, but arises when your back struggles to adapt to the tasks you’re asking it to perform.
This conundrum originates from the dual functionality of your back. On one hand, it needs to be incredibly mobile for movement. On the other hand, it needs to be rigid and stiff, enabling you to lift heavy weights.
Achieving this balance involves three interconnected systems. The first is the architectural system of bones and joints, which forms the spine’s 24 vertebrae and allows significant potential for movement. For instance, newborn babies are incredibly flexible, yet they lack the strength to lift anything!
Stiffness in a mobile joint is only possible through compression, which is one of the functions of your muscles. These usually run at right angles to the joint surface and, upon contracting, they compress the joint’s surfaces together, creating stiffness. This is easily visible with your finger: it’s quite flexible, but by contracting your forearm muscles to point your finger, it becomes stiff and unbendable.
However, muscles can’t operate in isolation. They need guidance, and that’s where the nervous system comes in. It uses feedback from muscles, joints, and other body tissues to regulate muscle tension and, therefore, the mobility or stiffness of joints. This is an automated process, but it’s something we all have to learn during the first couple of years of our lives – essentially, learning to control the nearly 700 muscles in our bodies!
This process is incredibly dynamic and adapts depending on what we ask our bodies to do. When these three systems harmonise perfectly, it enables your body to adapt effectively to your environment, much like a well-tuned car engine.
However, there are limits to how much this adaptation can occur, and often compromises must be made. These can lead to the systems not integrating properly, resulting in abnormal compensations with some areas moving too much and others not enough. This imbalance places abnormal stresses and loading on your body’s structures – like your car tyres wearing unevenly if the alignment is off. If ignored, this can lead to pain and longer-term damage to joints and muscles.
As osteopaths, we are trained to spot these issues and assess any imbalances and abnormal stresses placed on your body. With this information, we can apply physical manipulation and mobilisation of joints, and stretch and massage your muscles to improve joint mobility, relieve muscle tension, alleviate pain, enhance blood supply to your tissues, and create an optimal environment for your body to heal properly.
But merely restoring bodily function often isn’t sufficient. It’s likely that certain aspects of your environment are perpetuating your problem. As such, osteopaths also examine things like prolonged sitting, poor posture, or other bad habits you may have picked up. We can then provide preventative advice and basic exercises to keep your body in peak condition, avoiding further issues in the long run.
It’s common for patients to have routine ‘check-ins’ with their osteopath every few months, ensuring everything continues to function well and they’re not falling back into old, detrimental habits. The goal is to prevent the recurrence of their issues. It’s comparable to scheduling your car for a service, or regular dental check-ups to avoid painful and expensive procedures. Maintaining the health of your body is just as important, if not more so!
Your body is a beautifully complex machine, and as osteopaths, we’re the engineers helping it run smoothly. We ensure that all your muscles, joints, and nerves are functioning properly. By identifying and resolving any issues early, we help you prevent larger health problems down the line. This proactive approach isn’t just about avoiding pain or discomfort; it’s about allowing you to live your life to the fullest.
Steve Morris is an Osteopath with over 30 years’ experience. He is a specialist in the field of non-surgical treatment of disc conditions, especially sciatica. He uses various different treatment mediums, from hands on osteopathy and acupuncture to the use of mechanical decompression with IDD Therapy, for which he is one of the country’s leading exponents and experts.