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Osteopathy is a therapy that involves manipulating your bones and muscles (the musculo skeletal system) to treat symptoms and illnesses.

Osteopathy comes from two Greek words meaning bone and disease.

It is based on the belief that the body is more healthy and can recover from illnesses more quickly when the body structure is working well.

Specialists trained in osteopathy (osteopaths) think that our bones and muscles are key to diagnosing and treating many disorders.

Osteopathy is a manual therapy that doesn’t involve surgery or drugs. Osteopaths use their hands to find problem areas in the body. They treat problems by massaging or moving the relevant parts of your body.

The idea is for this to:

  • improve your circulation
  • reduce swelling
  • ease pain
  • help to restore movement

Techniques include:

  • massage
  • stretching muscles, tendons and ligaments
  • moving joints rhythmically
  • muscle manipulation
  • short sharp movements called high velocity thrusts

Some osteopaths also use very gentle movements of your skull and sometimes the bone at the bottom of the spine (sacrum). This is a form of treatment called cranial osteopathy or cranio sacral therapy.

Osteopathy is becoming more widely recognised by the medical profession. Many GP surgeries throughout the country provide access to osteopathy.

Most osteopaths don’t call themselves complementary therapists and are more likely to refer to themselves as primary healthcare practitioners.

Why people with cancer use osteopathy

There is no evidence to suggest that osteopathy will help treat or cure cancer. But some people who use osteopathy say it can help to control pain and tension. They also say that it helps them to relax, which improves their overall feeling of health and well being.

What having it involves

On your first visit, your osteopath will ask about your medical history, as well as looking at your general lifestyle including work, diet and exercise. These questions aim to find out what is causing your symptoms.

Your osteopath might ask about:

  • any muscle, joint or bone injuries you have had
  • where and how often you have pain or other symptoms
  • how much the symptoms affect your daily life
  • the type of work you do
  • the amount and type of exercise you do
  • your sleep patterns and the type of bed that you sleep on
  • your diet including alcohol, drugs and smoking habits
  • other medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart problems and asthma

They will then examine you, which might include checking your heart rate, reflexes, and breathing pattern.

They might want to contact your GP to make sure you should go ahead with treatment.

To have the treatment you will usually need to take off your clothes except your underwear. This is so the osteopath can see and work on your muscles and joints. You might have a gown to wear.

The osteopath might use their hands to stretch, massage and improve movement in your spine, joints and muscles. Sometimes they use a rapid thrust type action. This can cause a popping sound due to the sudden change of pressure in the joint space. This might sound alarming, but it shouldn’t be painful.

Tell the osteopath if you have any discomfort or want them to stop at any time.

Treatment sessions usually last about 30 to 40 minutes. Most osteopaths suggest that you have between 3 to 6 sessions to get the most benefit.

Your osteopath may suggest exercises that you can do at home to help prevent further muscle and joint problems.

Research into osteopathy

Osteopathy is widely used, and sometimes provided by the NHS. So there is continued research into its use. The National Council for Osteopathic Research (NCOR) promotes research into osteopathy in the UK.

Most of the existing research evidence is about thrust techniques for back pain. There is now good evidence from clinical trials that spinal manipulation helps lower back pain. The BEAM clinical trial in the UK in 2004 found that manipulation worked slightly better than the standard care provided by GPs. It worked even better when combined with an exercise programme afterwards.

A review of 6 studies in 2006 found that low back pain was significantly reduced after osteopathic treatment and the benefit lasted for several months.

The Cochrane Library has published reviews which have found that manipulation seems able to reduce the frequency of tension type headaches. But, it does not help painful periods or asthma. There are too few clinical trials to know for sure whether manipulation works for other conditions.

There is not much research into other gentler techniques (such as massage) that are more likely to be used for other illnesses, including cancer. But there is some evidence that massage helps with some cancer related symptoms such as fluid build up (lymphoedema), anxiety and tiredness.

Most evidence for osteopathy in cancer care is based on reports by patients, osteopaths, and some doctors saying that it has helped. This is called anecdotal evidence.

There was an international trial looking at whether osteopathy can help to reduce pain after breast cancer surgery. This closed in 2015 and we're still waiting for the results.

Possible side effects

Using osteopathy is generally safe. Of all the people who use it, half might have mild effects afterwards. These usually go away within a couple of days.

The effects might include:

  • a slight soreness in the treated area
  • a mild headache
  • tiredness

Contact your osteopath for advice if these symptoms don’t go away.

There have been some concerns about the possible risk of having a stroke (an interruption to the blood supply to the brain) because of manipulation to your neck. Between 1 and 3 out of every 1 million people who have neck manipulation are at risk of having a stroke.

Your osteopath will follow strict guidelines about the kind of neck manipulation they can and can’t do if you are at high risk of stroke.

Tell your osteopath if you have:

  • a history of heart or circulation problems
  • had a recent trauma or injury
  • sudden or unusual headaches or neck pain

It may help to know that spinal manipulation for neck pain seems to be much safer than taking non steroidal anti inflammatory medicines. This is according to a research review carried out by the National Council for Osteopathic Research (NCOR) in 2010. 

Who shouldn’t have it

It is important that you tell your cancer specialist before you have osteopathy. And, that you make sure your osteopath knows that you have cancer.

In most cases it will be OK for you to go ahead. But most doctors and osteopaths won’t recommend using forceful techniques, such as the high velocity thrust technique for people who have:

  • any type of bone cancer
  • weakened bones (osteoporosis)
  • broken bones or fractures
  • cancer involving the bone marrow such as leukaemia, myeloma or lymphoma
  • inflammatory joint disease such as arthritis
  • infections
  • bleeding disorders, such as haemophilia
  • multiple sclerosis

You also shouldn’t have osteopathy:

  • during a course of radiotherapy
  • if you are taking drugs to help thin your blood (anticoagulants)
  • if you are between 8 and 12 weeks pregnant

Your doctor might not recommend that you have osteopathy for other reasons, such as during a course of chemotherapy. So always ask them before having treatment.

What it costs

Seeing an osteopath privately usually costs between £35 to £50 for a 30 to 40 minute session. Your first appointment may cost more (between £40 and £60) because it generally takes longer.

If you have private health insurance, your policy might cover osteopathy. Your insurance policy provider will advise you.

Some GPs can refer you for osteopathic treatment on the NHS, but this varies between primary care trusts.

Finding an osteopath

It is very important that your osteopath is properly trained and qualified. Practitioners are required by law to register with the General Osteopathic Council (GOC) if they want to call themselves osteopaths.

This means they have to meet the set of standards and code of conduct as well as have insurance.

Find a qualified osteopath on the GOC website or phone them for a list of osteopaths in your area.

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

The GOsC is the professional regulatory body for osteopaths.There are about 4,300 osteopaths registered with the GOsC.

Osteopathy House
176 Tower Bridge Road

Phone 020 7357 6655

They give information about osteopathy on their website and can help you to find a qualified osteopath.

3 Park Terrace
Manor Road

Phone: O1582 488455

The NCOR carries out research into osteopathy in health care. There are summaries of the research on their website.

Based at the:

Centre for Primary & Public Health
Blizard Institute
Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry
Yvonne Carter Building
58 Turner Street
E1 2AB

Phone: 020 7882 6131

Last reviewed: 
05 Feb 2015
  • ABC of Complementary Medicine
    A Vickers
    British Medical Journal, 1999, Volume 319

  • Assessing the risks of cervical manipulation for neck pain.
    GT Wright
    Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2002, Volume 166 Issue 9

  • Chiropractic manipulation and stroke: a population-based case-control study.
    DM Rothwell and others.
    Stroke, 2001, Volume 32, Issue 5.

  • United Kingdom back pain exercise and manipulation (UK BEAM) randomised trial:effectiveness of physical treatments for back pain in primary care.
    UK BEAM Trial Team
    British Medical Journal, 2004

  • Adverse events and manual therapy: a systematic review.
    D Carnes and others
    Manual Therapy, 2010, Volume 15, Issue 4

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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