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The Origins of Osteopathy

Osteopathy was born out of the desperation of a father who had lost three children to meningitis in 1864.

Andrew Taylor Still was an American medical doctor. At that time, mercury-based medicine was widely used to cure the ill. The problem with that was that it either made you better or it killed you.

Having lost three children, Andrew Taylor Still made it his life’s work to find a way to treat people that did not involve putting mercury in them. Osteopathy was born.

I would like to outline our basic osteopathic principles so you can get an understanding of what we do, why we do it… and why we love it!

The body only has a finite amount of energy which it uses in different ways:

  • It uses this energy for its immune system to fight off microorganisms that invade the body every second of its life. Energy is also used to clean and replace the cells that make up our skin, muscles, bones, organs, blood, etc. 
  • It also uses energy to move, or to be static: breathing, walking, playing sport and even sitting still at a desk. Our body evolved to be very good at movement and its physiological processes like digestion, respiration, reproduction and tissue healing depend on it. So being still, like when you’re waiting in a long queue or sitting in a chair for a few hours, is actually a really difficult thing for your body to do.
  • Digestion takes energy, food needs to be moved from one side of the body, to the other, moving through some very long pipes, your intestines, while at the same time nutrients need to be taken from it and waste products and toxins need to be extracted and excreted.
  • And here comes the big one: thinking takes energy. If you have ever found yourself overthinking something, you will know how physically draining it can be. Our brains are large, and they need a lot of energy to function.

So, as you can see, we need a lot of energy for a lot of basic processes in our body.

How does the body’s structure work?

The “pipes” that need energy to move their contents to and from body areas where they are needed/ used up are our blood vessels, nerves and lymphatic vessels. As you all know from your garden hoses, a kink in the pipe makes it harder for water to go through it. It uses up more energy and makes the process less efficient.

All our blood and lymphatic vessels and nerves lie in close proximity to bones, joints and muscles. This has a reason: the body uses the natural pumping occurring through movement of joints and muscles to help the process of moving things through the pipes. For example, venous blood returning to the heart is hugely helped by the movement of your calf muscles, in which the veins and their valves are embedded. Clever. The movement of your diaphragm, the big internal muscle that makes you breathe, acts as a massive lymphatic and blood pump to your internal organs. And very mobile joints like your shoulder play a big part in creating a suction effect on your lymphatic fluid throughout your body, encouraging it to return to your heart.

The spine is meant to have an S-shape, as this guarantees perfect shock absorption and energy efficiency when walking. As bipeds, this is what we evolved to do: walk. Therefore, the spine and skeleton have a certain shape, and each bone a particular way of making contact with the next. Each of these unions, also called joints, play a very important role in the pumping processes in the nerves and blood vessels sitting next to them.

What happens when this structure is broken?

Now imagine you fall off your bike, horse, or ladder, and you twist your knee and ankle, pull your shoulder and overarch your back. Suddenly the body is injured. Bones may have moved out of alignment, muscles and ligaments may have been overstretched or are too contracted now, you may even be bleeding.

A muscle that is too contracted or too stretched needs more energy to maintain its state, in a way you could call it ‘hungrier’ for energy. The same with joints that are now slightly out of alignment, their capsules and cartilage are now using up more energy than before the fall. And moving those out-of-alignment joints is also much harder for the body now.

You will feel sore for a few days while the body heals itself. Healing takes a lot of energy. Maybe you also use a lot of energy to think about why it happened, that you feel weak/embarrassed or worried about it happening again.

Go back to all the physiological processes our body needs energy for and the initial principle of the body’s energy is finite. You can now appreciate why some essential processes in the body will be put on the back burner while the body heals the injuries. There is just not enough energy, to have all body processes work as normal plus healing an injury. Something has to give. You may not digest as well, you may feel your thoughts are less clear, you may find it harder to move or just sit. You may feel like you have less energy to do the things that you enjoy.

This is where we come in!

As osteopaths, we find the areas of your body that have been injured. Your injury may not be caused by activity, such as a fall. It could be due to long hours sitting at your desk with poor posture. To the body, that is traumatic and can lead to injury.

Using our techniques of mobilising joints and soft tissues like muscles and tendons, ligaments and fascia, we can help restore that S-shape and normal skeletal alignment which is so good for our nerves and blood vessels. The better we are aligned; the less energy is bound up in joints that aren’t gliding properly or tight muscles. And the more energy we have for cellular cleaning, immune function, thinking, digesting and expressing who we want to be.

As osteopaths, we love to help free your energy, reduce your pain and help you recover from injury. Being able to help you to live your life is why we love what we do!

This article was written by Ann-Christin Wicke, a Registered Osteopath within our Shefford Osteopathic Clinic team.