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Like chiropractic, osteopathy is based on the principle that any problems with the musculoskeletal system, such as misalignments, can affect the whole body, including the vital organs and circulatory systems. Osteopaths use manipulation of the elements of the musculoskeletal system, bones, joints, muscles and ligaments, to alleviate tension and improve the mobility of these joints and muscles as well as a person's posture and general balance. Ultimately, it is thought that a better posture, will boost a person's entire well-being.

It differs from chiropractic in that it tends to concentrate more on relaxing the muscles to help mobility rather than just realignment, and also chiropractors usually work on just the spine, whereas osteopaths work on arms, legs and sometimes the skull (see Cranial Osteopathy). In addition, chiropractors focus on the flow of energy through the nervous system while osteopaths concentrate on getting blood flowing round the circulatory system more freely.

Where did it all begin?
Osteopathy was developed in the 1870s by an American doctor called Andrew Taylor Still. During the course of his work, he began to notice how a person's general health was related to how they used their bodies and held themselves. He thought that bad posture, physical injury and even emotional injury like depression, could put stress on the body's musculo-skeletal system. The theory that he developed was that if the body's structure was correctly aligned then it would be able to function well and even its self-healing processes would be able to work better. In other words, health problems are related to the musculo-skeletal system and osteopathy identifies these problems and puts them right.

What does the treatment involve?
As with other holistic treatments, the practitioner will first ask about your medical history and general lifestyle. They will then look at your posture and then ask you to do various movements so that any faults can be diagnosed and assessed. The faults are corrected by manipulation of the muscles and joints, and massage to relieve tension. It is not painful and the clicking and cracking that you might hear does not hurt - it sounds a lot worse than it is!

An osteopath does not only help with your immediate problem. They will try to establish its cause and advise you of any changes that you can make to your lifestyle to avoid the problem happening again.

Osteopathy is very popular and widespread and is often used alongside conventional medicine. Along with chiropractic, it is regulated by law and some GPs can even refer you to an osteopath on the NHS.

  How osteopathy helped me

First encounter
My first encounter with an osteopath was in my early twenties, when, finally fed up with the debilitating back pain that occurred whenever I had been under pressure, or whenever I had been sitting at a desk for too long, I decided to do something about it. The pain was always in the same place, in the middle of the right hand side of my back, and I felt that if I didn't try to get it sorted out now, the problem would plague me even more in later life.

I made an appointment with an osteopath that both my parents had visited in the past and it was a revelation. After answering some general questions about my particular problem, my medical history and my general lifestyle, she asked me to stand up and balance my weight evenly on both feet while she looked at by back and my posture.

Within seconds she told be that one of my legs was longer than the other! It was only a matter of millimetres, which is why I had never noticed, but this miniscule difference had thrown the whole of my body structure out, resulting in the back pain that I was experiencing.

The treatment itself was very effective. A combination of manipulation and massage, it was also very relaxing. Some of the 'cracks' I heard sounded frightening but I felt no pain at all and came out feeling much better, although I was advised not to go to my usual dance class that night in case it undid all the good work!

However, it wasn't just the immediate treatment that was important, it was the advice that she gave me about slight changes to my everyday life that were the difference between comfort and pain. She firstly told me not to sit with crossed legs as this is actually very bad for the back, and also to raise the height of my desk by a few inches so that I would not be hunched over it quite so much. The builder over the road from my office gave me some off cuts of wood to put under the legs of my desk and I noticed the difference immediately. Now, some ten years later I still have these blocks of wood, which have transferred jobs with me!

My back was so much better that I only saw her a couple of times over the next five years, and the few times that I did have to go were due to overdoing things at dance classes and entirely down to me not following her advice. I also felt much healthier within myself, and without the recurring pain, I was much more positive in my outlook.

Saving grace
Then, five years ago I had a rather nasty horse riding accident where the horse that I was on was suddenly startled. I lost my balance and ended up on the ground, landing on the bottom of my spine with reverberations being felt up to my neck. I couldn't move and, coming only two months after Christopher Reeves' life-changing accident, I panicked. In the ambulance they checked to see that I still had feelings in all my limbs, which I did, so I began to relax a little.

In the hospital they x-rayed me to check that I had not broken my back and as soon as they found out that I hadn't they gave me some strong painkillers and said I could go home. The fact that I couldn't walk didn't seem to concern them too much! My parents got me back to my flat after some difficulty and, after lying in bed for three days and not getting any better, I called my GP out. He said that I had bruised my back badly and if I stayed in bed and rested for a week I would be fine.

Relieved, I concentrated on resting but it soon became clear that the pain was not going away. I couldn't get up and walk around and I was reduced to a camping portaloo by the side of the bed with my mother bringing round all my meals and helping me to wash my hair over the edge of the bed in a washing up bowl. I felt completely helpless and although I kept trying to get up, I was reduced to tears of pain within minutes. I called my osteopath and it wasn't until I saw her that the whole situation became clear and treatment and advice was given. Simply by feeling the position of the bones and muscles in my back, she was able to work out the extent of my injury and what needed to be done.

It turned out that I had crushed the disks in my lower spine very badly; it was a horrible injury and trying to get up and return to work could make things much worse. As well as the usual type of treatment, massage and manipulation, I was told that I mustn't sit down for a month but try and get up and walk around a little bit more everyday. She also suggested that I took the homeopathic remedy arnica, to help to heal the bruising. I saw her every week for the next month and gradually things got easier. I was back at work within five weeks and only saw her once a month for the next three.

At my final appointment she gave me a series of exercises to do to build up my muscle strength in the lower back because, as I hadn't been very active while I was injured, the muscles weren't very strong and wouldn't support the injury.

I think that my treatment from an osteopath saved me from a life of discomfort. I still get the odd twinge and am careful about what sort of exercise I can do, but because I am aware of my posture and what will help and not help my back, I have been able to keep pain-free. I don't like to think about what sort of state I might have been it if I hadn't made that original appointment!

N.B. Before embarking on any course of therapy or taking any kind of herbal or other remedies, please consult your doctor or practitioner for advice.

N.B. Before embarking on any course of therapy or taking any kind of herbal or other remedies, please consult your doctor or practitioner for advice.

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