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.
The question whether infant colic can be effectively treated with manipulative therapies might seem rather trivial – after all, this is a benign condition which the infant quickly grows out of. However, the issue becomes a little more tricky, if we consider that it was one of the 6 paediatric illnesses which were at the centre of the famous libel case of the BCA against my friend and co-author Simon Singh. At the time, Simon had claimed that there was ‘not a jot of evidence’ for claiming that chiropractic was an effective treatment of infant colic, and my systematic review of the evidence strongly supported his statement. The BCA eventually lost their libel case and with it the reputation of chiropractic. Now a new article on this intriguing topic has become available; do we have to reverse our judgements?
The aim of this new systematic review was to evaluate the efficacy or effectiveness of manipulative therapies for infantile colic. Six RCTs of chiropractic, osteopathy or cranial osteopathy alone or in conjunction with other interventions were included with a total of 325 infants. Of the 6 included studies, 5 were “suggestive of a beneficial effect” and one found no evidence of benefit. Combining all the RCTs suggested that manipulative therapies had a significant effect. The average crying time was reduced by an average of 72 minutes per day. This effect was sustained for studies with a low risk of selection bias and attrition bias. When analysing only those studies with a low risk of performance bias (i.e. parental blinding) the improvement in daily crying hours was no longer statistically significant.
The quality of the studies was variable. There was a generally low risk of selection bias but a high risk of performance bias. Only one of the studies recorded adverse events and none were encountered.
From these data, the authors drew the following conclusion: Parents of infants receiving manipulative therapies reported fewer hours crying per day than parents whose infants did not and this difference was statistically significant. Most studies had a high risk of performance bias due to the fact that the assessors (parents) were not blind to who had received the intervention. When combining only those trials with a low risk of such performance bias the results did not reach statistical significance.
Does that mean that chiropractic does work for infant colic? No, it does not!
The first thing to point out is that the new systematic review included not just RCTs of chiropractic but also osteopathy and cranio-sacral therapy.
The second important issue is that the effects disappear, once performance bias is being accounted for which clearly shows that the result is false positive.
The third relevant fact is that the majority of the RCTs were of poor quality. The methodologically best studies were negative.
And the fourth thing to note is that only one study mentioned adverse effects, which means that the other 5 trials were in breach of one of rather elementary research ethics.
What makes all of this even more fascinating is the fact that the senior author of the new publication, George Lewith, is the very expert who advised the BCA in their libel case against Simon Singh. He seems so fond of his work that he even decided to re-publish it using even more misleading language than before. It is, of course, far from me to suggest that his review was an attempt to white-wash the issue of chiropractic ‘bogus’ claims. However, based on the available evidence, I would have formulated conclusions which are more than just a little different from his; something like this perhaps:
The current best evidence suggests that the small effects that emerge when we pool the data from mostly unreliable studies are due to bias and therefore not real. This systematic review therefore fails to show that manipulative therapies are effective. It furthermore points to a serious breach of research ethics by the majority of researchers in this field.
Craniosacral therapy (CST), which, confusingly, is sometimes also called ‘cranial osteopathy’, was invented less than half a century ago by an osteopath. He thought that the spinal fluid is pulsating, the cranial bones are sufficiently movable to enable a therapist feel this pulse from the outside, and that it is possible to influence this process with very gente manual manipulations which, in turn, would restore health in sick individuals. According to the inventor, the CST-practitioner uses his or her own hands to evaluate the craniosacral system by gently feeling various locations of the body to test for the ease of motion and rhythm of the fluid pulsing around the brain and spinal cord. Soft-touch techniques are then used to release restrictions in any tissues influencing the craniosacral system.
But how does CST work? Let’s ask a practitioner who surely must know best:
When a self-development issue is linked to the illness, it is enough for that issue to be acknowledged by the client (without any further discussion unless the client desires it) for the body to release the memory of that issue – sensed by the therapist as tightness, tension, inertia within the body’s systems – so that the healing can proceed.
Several treatment sessions may still be needed, especially if the condition is a long lasting one. Our bodies’ self healing mechanisms rely on a combination of the various fluid systems of the body (blood and lymph flow and the fluid nature of the cells making up all the organs and systems within our bodies) and the body’s energy fields. Our hearts generate their own electrical signal independently of the control of our brains. Such signals travel around the body through the blood and other fluid systems. Blood is an excellent conductor of electricity and, when electricity flows through a conductor, magnetic fields are created. It is with these fields that the craniosacral therapist works.
These same fields store the memory of the events of our life – rather like the hard disk on a computer – but these memories can only be accessed when the underlying Body intelligence ‘decides’ it is needed as part of the healing process. There is absolutely no danger, therefore, of more being revealed than is strictly necessary to encourage the client back onto their self development route and to enable healing to take place.
To many desperate patients or distressed parents of ill children – CST is often advocated for children, particularly those suffering from cerebral palsy – this sort of lingo might sound impressive; to anyone understanding a bit of physiology, anatomy etc. it looks like pure nonsense. CST has therefore been considered by most independent experts to be on the lunatic fringe of alternative medicine.
Of course, this does not stop proponents to make and publicise big therapeutic claims for CST; it would be quite difficult to think of a condition that some CST-practitioner does not claim to cure or alleviate. One UK organisation boldly states that any symptom a patient may present with will improve in the hands of one of their members; in the eyes of its proponents, CST clearly is a panacea.
But, let’s be fair, the fact that it is implausible does not necessarily mean that CST is useless. The theory might be barmy and wrong, yet the treatment might still be effective via a different, as yet unknown mechanism. What we need to decide is evidence from clinical trials.
Recently, I have evaluated the findings from all randomised clinical trials of CST. I was pleasantly surprised to find that 6 such trials had been published, one would not normally expect so many studies of something that seems so utterly implausible. Far less impressive was the fact that the quality of the studies was, with the exception of one trial, deplorably poor.
The conditions treated in the trials were diverse: cerebral palsy, migraine, fibromyalgia and infant colic. All the badly-flawed studies reported positive results. The only rigorous trial was the one with children suffering from cerebral palsy – and here the findings were squarely negative. The conlusion of my review was blunt and straight forward: “the notion that CST is associated with more than non-specific effects is not based on evidence from rigorous randomised clinical trials“. This is a polite and scientific way of saying that CST is bogus.
Why should this matter? CST is popular, particularly for children. It is a very gentle technique, and some might argue that no harm [apart from the cost] can be done; on the contrary, the gentle touch might even calm over-excited children and could thus be helpful. Who then cares that it has no specific therapeutic effects?
Few people would argue against the potential benefits of gentle touch or other non-specific effects. But we should realise that, for achieving them, we do not need CST or other placebo-treatments. An effective therapy that is given with compassion and empathy will do the same trick; and, in addition, it will also generate specific therapeutic effects.
What follows is simple: administering CST or other bogus treatments [by this, I mean a treatment for which claims are being made that are not supported by sound evidence] means preventing the patient from profiting from the most important element of any good treatment. In such cases, patients will not be treated adequately which can not just cost money but, in extreme cases, also lives.
In a nutshell: 1) ineffective therapies, such as CST, may seem harmless but, through their ineffectiveness, they constitute a serious threat to our health; 2) bogus treatments become bogus through the false claims which are being made for them; 3) seriously flawed studies can be worse than none at all: they generate false positive results and send us straight up the garden path.