According to the UK General Osteopathic Council, osteopathy is a system of diagnosis and treatment for a wide range of medical conditions. It works with the structure and function of the body, and is based on the principle that the well-being of an individual depends on the skeleton, muscles, ligaments and connective tissues functioning smoothly together.
To an osteopath, for your body to work well, its structure must also work well. So osteopaths work to restore your body to a state of balance, where possible without the use of drugs or surgery. Osteopaths use touch, physical manipulation, stretching and massage to increase the mobility of joints, to relieve muscle tension, to enhance the blood and nerve supply to tissues, and to help your body’s own healing mechanisms. They may also provide advice on posture and exercise to aid recovery, promote health and prevent symptoms recurring.
In case this sounds a bit vague to you, and in case you wonder what this “wide range of conditions” might be, rest assured, you are not alone. So let’s try to be a little more concrete and clear up some of the confusion around this profession. There are two very different types of osteopaths: US osteopaths are virtually identical with conventionally trained physicians; their qualification is equivalent to those of medical practitioners and they can, for instance, specialise to become GPs or neurologists or surgeons etc. Elsewhere, osteopaths are non-medically qualified alternative practitioners. In the UK, they are regulated by statute, in other counties not. And as to the “wide range of conditions”, I am not aware of any disease or symptom for which the evidence is convincing.
Osteopaths most commonly treat patients suffering from Chronic Non-Specific Low Back Pain (CNSLBP) using a set of non-drug interventions, particularly manual therapies such as spinal mobilisation and manipulation. The question is how well are these techniques supported by reliable evidence. To answer it, we must not cherry-pick our evidence but we need to consider the totality of the reliable studies; in other words, we need an up-to-date systematic review. Such an assessment of clinical research into osteopathic intervention for CNSLBP was recently published by Australian experts.
A thorough search of the literature in multiple electronic databases was undertaken, and all articles were included that reported clinical trials; had adult participants; tested the effectiveness and/or efficacy of osteopathic manual therapies applied by osteopaths, and had a study condition of CNSLBP. The quality of the trials was assessed using the Cochrane criteria. Initial searches located 809 papers, 772 of which were excluded on the basis of abstract alone. The remaining 37 papers were subjected to a detailed analysis of the full text, which resulted in 35 further articles being excluded. There were thus only two studies assessing the effectiveness of manual therapies applied by osteopaths in adult patients with CNSLBP. The results of one trial suggested that the osteopathic intervention was similar in effect to a sham intervention, and the other implies equivalence of effect between osteopathic intervention, exercise and physiotherapy.
I guess, this comes as a bit of a surprise to many consumers who have been told over and over again by osteopaths and their supporters that the evidence is sound. Personally, I am not at all surprised because, two years ago, we published a similar review, albeit with a wider spectrum of conditions, namely any type of musculoskeletal pain. We managed to include a total of 16 RCTs. Five of them suggested that osteopathy leads to a significantly stronger reduction of musculoskeletal pain than a range of control interventions. However, 11 RCTs indicated that osteopathy, compared to controls, generates no change in musculoskeletal pain. At the time, we felt that these data fail to produce compelling evidence for the effectiveness of osteopathy as a treatment of musculoskeletal pain.
This lack of convincing evidence is in sharp contrast to the image of osteopaths as back pain specialists. The UK General Osteopathic council, for instance, sates that Osteopaths’ patients include the young, older people, manual workers, office professionals, pregnant women, children and sports people. Patients seek treatment for a wide variety of conditions, including back pain…In addition, thousands of websites try to convince the consumer that osteopathy is a well-proven therapy for chronic low back pain – not to mention the many other conditions for which the evidence is even less sound.
As so often in alternative medicine, these claims seem to be based more on wishful thinking than on reliable evidence. And as so often, the victims of bogus claims are the consumers who are being misled into making wrong therapeutic decisions, wasting money, and delaying recovery from illness.