What is Osteopathic treatment? Don’t you mean orthopedic? How Are they Different?
Osteopathic. Orthopedic. I know… Two long “O” words, they sound kind of medical, and both seem to offer the solution to your problem. Confused yet?
Don’t be. You already know one of them because you see it every day: Orthopedics. This is the area of medicine concerning the musculoskeletal system, and we see it everywhere we turn- usually big health systems advertising on TV, the radio, online… Services mainly involving surgery, or physical therapy, or both.
Osteopathic treatment comes from a tradition in medicine that is a little less known by the public, but it’s been around for at least as long. It includes orthopedics, but is more nuanced, expansive, and holistic in its philosophy. So let’s explore that further, with the HOW, the WHERE, and the WHAT.
Osteopathic manipulation is about the hands-on mobilizing of tissues in our body, but more than just stretching, compressing, or massaging muscles and ligaments like we do in traditional orthopedics. Many times, for example, the body does not respond well to being stretched or manipulated. The condition it’s dealing with is too sensitive, and when challenged by an external force like stretching or thrusting will protect itself with muscle spasm, possibly resulting in more pain. In these cases, it instead needs to be moved further into its tightened pattern in order to release. (also known as Indirect Technique) In essence here, the body has to be heard. The practitioner’s hands need to listen to what the tissues want to do, and follow that with the appropriate technique in his/her tool-kit to get the release. An osteopathic practitioner doesn’t run the show with his/her agenda for that day; it’s the body that guides how to do the manual work. We meet the body where it’s at in that moment.
The most important decision of all, is where to treat. Take shoulder pains for example.
No two shoulder problems are the same. This is because no two people are the same! Sure, there might be inflammation and irritation in the shoulder joint, but what is causing that to happen? What is causing that spot to be over-stressed? One person’s shoulder pain could be from tight pectoral muscles, but the next person could have restrictions in the joints of the spine and rib cage causing the problem. In another person it could be coming from abdominal tension from an old appendectomy that the body can no longer compensate for. Another might be restricted from tight lung tissues after a tough case of COVID-19. In traditional orthopedics, practitioners often don’t wander far from the site of the pain in their treatments. In the osteopathic tradition, the root cause could be anywhere in the body. It’s up to us to work where the tensions in the body are greatest, not where it hurts. The body knows what it needs more than we do, and it’s our job to trust that and help it heal from within. It’s a major paradigm shift from conventional medicine, and it takes a little faith at first, but the rewards are profound.
An osteopathic treatment technique could be on any tissue of the body, versus in orthopedics where the focus is on the musculoskeletal system. We’re talking about muscles, ligaments, and fascia, but we’re also talking about nerves, organs, blood vessels, and even bones! All these things are connected in the body, and they all must move and bend as well. Many musculoskeletal issues will recur if these other tissues are not properly addressed. The concept is a holistic and interconnected one, and not confined to one system in the body.
About the author:
Tim Newton, PT, DPT, OCS, CFMM and a board-certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist who specializes in manual, osteopathic techniques to help pain and movement dysfunction. His expertise is in visceral manipulation, gentle spinal manipulation, and craniosacral therapy. He is the owner of Inspire Movement Physical Therapy in Columbia, MD.