According to the ‘General Osteopathic Council’ (GOC), osteopathy is a primary care profession, focusing on the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal disorders, and the effects of these conditions on patients’ general health.
Using many of the diagnostic procedures applied in conventional medical assessment, osteopaths seek to restore the optimal functioning of the body, where possible without the use of drugs or surgery. Osteopathy is based on the principle that the body has the ability to heal, and osteopathic care focuses on strengthening the musculoskeletal systems to treat existing conditions and to prevent illness.
Osteopaths’ patient-centred approach to health and well-being means they consider symptoms in the context of the patient’s full medical history, as well as their lifestyle and personal circumstances. This holistic approach ensures that all treatment is tailored to the individual patient.
On a good day, such definitions make me smile; on a bad day, they make me angry. I can think of quite a few professions which would fit this definition just as well or better than osteopathy. What are we supposed to think about a profession that is not even able to provide an adequate definition of itself?
Perhaps I try a different angle: what conditions do osteopaths treat? The GOC informs us that commonly treated conditions include back and neck pain, postural problems, sporting injuries, muscle and joint deterioration, restricted mobility and occupational ill-health.
This statement seems not much better than the previous one. What on earth is ‘muscle and joint deterioration’? It is not a condition that I find in any medical dictionary or textbook. Can anyone think of a broader term than ‘occupational ill health’? This could be anything from tennis elbow to allergies or depression. Do osteopaths treat all of those?
One gets the impression that osteopaths and their GOC are deliberately vague – perhaps because this would diminish the risk of being held to account on any specific issue?
The more one looks into the subject of osteopathy, the more confused one gets. The profession goes back to Andrew Still ((August 6, 1828 – December 12, 1917) Palmer, the founder of chiropractic is said to have been one of Still’s pupils and seems to have ‘borrowed’ most of his concepts from him – even though he always denied this) who defined osteopathy as a science which consists of such exact exhaustive and verifiable knowledge of the structure and functions of the human mechanism, anatomy and physiology & psychology including the chemistry and physics of its known elements as is made discernable certain organic laws and resources within the body itself by which nature under scientific treatment peculiar to osteopathic practice apart from all ordinary methods of extraneous, artificial & medicinal stimulation and in harmonious accord with its own mechanical principles, molecular activities and metabolic processes may recover from displacements, derangements, disorganizations and consequent diseases and regain its normal equilibrium of form and function in health and strength.
This and many other of his statements seem to indicate that the art of using language for obfuscation has a long tradition in osteopathy and goes back directly to its founding father.
What makes the subject of osteopathy particularly confusing is not just the oddity that, in conventional medicine, the term means ‘disease of the bone’ (which renders any literature searches in this area a nightmare) but also the fact that, in different countries, osteopaths are entirely different professionals. In the US, osteopathy has long been fully absorbed by mainstream medicine and there is hardly any difference between MDs and ODs. In the UK, osteopaths are alternative practitioners regulated by statute but are, compared to chiropractors, of minor importance. In Germany, osteopaths are not regulated and fairly ‘low key’, while in France, they are numerous and like to see themselves as primary care physicians.
And what about the evidence base of osteopathy? Well, that’s even more confusing, in my view. Evidence for which treatment? As US osteopaths might use any therapy from drugs to surgery, it could get rather complicated. So let’s just focus on the manual treatment as used by osteopaths outside the US.
Anyone who attempts to critically evaluate the published trial evidence in this area will be struck by at least two phenomena:
- the wide range of conditions treated with osteopathic manual therapy (OMT)
- the fact that there are several groups of researchers that produce one positive result after the next.
The best example is probably the exceedingly productive research team of J. C. Licciardone from the Osteopathic Research Center, University of North Texas. Here are a few conclusions from their clinical studies:
- The large effect size for OMT in providing substantial pain reduction in patients with chronic LBP of high severity was associated with clinically important improvement in back-specific functioning. Thus, OMT may be an attractive option in such patients before proceeding to more invasive and costly treatments.
- The large effect size for short-term efficacy of OMT was driven by stable responders who did not relapse.
- Osteopathic manual treatment has medium to large treatment effects in preventing progressive back-specific dysfunction during the third trimester of pregnancy. The findings are potentially important with respect to direct health care expenditures and indirect costs of work disability during pregnancy.
- Severe somatic dysfunction was present significantly more often in patients with diabetes mellitus than in patients without diabetes mellitus. Patients with diabetes mellitus who received OMT had significant reductions in LBP severity during the 12-week period. Decreased circulating levels of TNF-α may represent a possible mechanism for OMT effects in patients with diabetes mellitus. A larger clinical trial of patients with diabetes mellitus and comorbid chronic LBP is warranted to more definitively assess the efficacy and mechanisms of action of OMT in this population.
- The OMT regimen met or exceeded the Cochrane Back Review Group criterion for a medium effect size in relieving chronic low back pain. It was safe, parsimonious, and well accepted by patients.
- Osteopathic manipulative treatment slows or halts the deterioration of back-specific functioning during the third trimester of pregnancy.
- The only consistent finding in this study was an association between type 2 diabetes mellitus and tissue changes at T11-L2 on the right side. Potential explanations for this finding include reflex viscerosomatic changes directly related to the progression of type 2 diabetes mellitus, a spurious association attributable to confounding visceral diseases, or a chance observation unrelated to type 2 diabetes mellitus. Larger prospective studies are needed to better study osteopathic palpatory findings in type 2 diabetes mellitus.
- OMT significantly reduces low back pain. The level of pain reduction is greater than expected from placebo effects alone and persists for at least three months. Additional research is warranted to elucidate mechanistically how OMT exerts its effects, to determine if OMT benefits are long lasting, and to assess the cost-effectiveness of OMT as a complementary treatment for low back pain.
Based on this brief review of the evidence origination from one of the most active research team, one could be forgiven to think that osteopathy is a panacea. But such an assumption is, of course, nonsensical; a more reasonable conclusion might be the following: osteopathy is one of the most confusing and confused subject under the already confused umbrella of alternative medicine.