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Philosophy of Osteopathy

Where there is life, there is motion. Osteopathy appreciates the significance of even the smallest motion within all the tissues and cells of the body, and applies this understanding in it’s unique form of medical care. Simply put, when the body’s motion is in balance, a state of health exists. When this motion is disturbed, health is affected and a state of disease can arise. It is the Osteopathic physician’s highly developed sense of touch that allows the physician to palpate (feel) this motion and, through skilled hands, to administer Osteopathic manipulative treatments. These treatments can relieve disturbances of motion and enhance the vitality and function of the patient.

Although Osteopathy employs the practice of manual medicine, it is not just a set of techniques. It is a philosophy and a science based on the application of sound principles. Initially conceived during the late nineteenth century by Dr Andrew Taylor Still, the founder of Osteopathy, these principles have been consistently validated by scientific research.

The philosophy and science of Osteopathy is based upon the following four principles:

Structure and Function are Interrelated

From the smallest cell to the largest bone, all of anatomy is alive and in constant dynamic, rhythmic motion. Blood flows, lymphatics drain and cerebral spinal fluid fluctuates. The heart beats and the ribcage expands and contracts with each respiration. Each and every organ gently moves as it functions. Each and every structure has its own inherent rhythmic activity. This is the living anatomy that osteopathic physicians feel with their hands. When this motion becomes impaired, the tissues will not function as they were intended. As a result of this altered motion, symptoms develop, and disease may even occur. Dr. Still described this process in the following way, “Disease is the result of anatomical abnormalities followed by physiologic discord.”

Dr. Still described the body as being like a machine. It has interrelated parts that need to be in proper position and to move correctly for optimal function. For example, taking a deep breath may be difficult if the ribs, diaphragm or parts of the spine do not move well. When breathing is impaired, lymphatic drainage (necessary for clearing congestion and inflammation) will also be impaired. This may contribute to the development of asthma or respiratory infections.

A dramatic example of how well osteopathic physicians understand the importance of the structure and function relationship is the influenza epidemic of 1917-1918. Approximately 30,000,000 people died worldwide. In the U.S., osteopathic physicians treated their patients with osteopathic manipulation and were quite successful in decreasing mortality from the disease. In fact, while hospitals run by MD’s reported a 30 to 40 percent mortality rate, osteopathic hospitals reported a mortality rate of less than one percent.

The Body is a Single Dynamic Unit of Function

There are many unifying systems within the body. The circulatory system supplies blood to every tissue and organ. The nervous system connects and integrates all of the body’s functions. A third unifying system is comprised of a connective tissue matrix called fascia. The fascia is a continuous sheath of living tissue that connects the body front to back, head to toe. It surrounds every muscle, organ, nerve and blood vessel. A primary function of this fascial system is to support and lubricate. Thus, the circulatory system, the nervous system and the fascia all help to organize the body into a unified continuous whole. No single part exists independent of the whole. When even a small part of the body does not function optimally, the entire person is affected.

Consider the circulatory system. Dr. Still stated, “The rule of artery and vein is universal in all living beings, and the osteopath must know that and abide by its rulings, or he will not succeed as a healer.” Dr. Still used these words to describe the essential need for optimal fluid exchange. When blood and other fluids flow freely, the tissues can perform their physiologic functions without interference. Injury or strain may cause a fascial twist that can impair circulation in tiny blood vessels that supply nerves, larger vessels, organs or other tissues. Obstruction or limitation of blood, fluid and nerve flow causes areas in the body to become undernourished or congested resulting in weakness, pain and vulnerability to disease. It is similar to trying to water a garden with a kinked hose. The water will not flow properly and the garden will not receive its proper nutrition.

Understanding this concept of functional unity allows osteopathic physicians to diagnose and treat their patients as a functional whole. This may explain why an osteopathic physician may treat an area that is fairly distant from the area of pain or injury.

The Body Possesses Self-Regulatory and Self-Healing Mechanisms

The human body is always working to maintain a state of balanced function. For example, blood pressure, blood sugar and the heart rate are actively kept within a normal range. When there is a laceration or tear in the tissues, a physician can assist by cleaning the wound and bringing the edges together, but healing occurs by the action of inherent forces and processes within the body.

Dr Still stated, “All the remedies necessary to health exist in the human body.” He understood that within the tissues, there is an inherent wisdom, a wise all-knowing restorative force, an intelligence within every cell that keeps the body well. When a state of discord arises, this healing force acts to restore functional balance and harmony. Sometimes the body’s self-healing forces can be impaired or impeded by disease or structural imbalance. The osteopathic physician is trained to augment these intrinsic mechanisms to help the body to better and more quickly heal itself.

Rational Treatment is Based on the Application of these Principles

Osteopathic treatment applies these principles with a sound and thorough knowledge of anatomy and physiology. An osteopathic medical approach to treatment typically integrates osteopathic manipulation to restore structural freedom in the tissues, enhance fluid flow throughout the body, and creates the optimal setting for healing to occur and health to be maintained.