Osteopathy and cancer

Osteopathy involves manipulating your bones and muscles to treat symptoms and illnesses.


  • Osteopathy is a hands on treatment, it does not involve surgery or drugs. 
  • Osteopaths focus on the bones and muscles to help diagnose and treat you.
  • It aims to reduce swelling, improve movement and ease pain.

What is osteopathy?

Osteopathy comes from two Greek words meaning bone and disease. Specialists trained in osteopathy are called osteopaths.  

Osteopaths think that our bones and muscles are key to diagnosing and treating many disorders. Osteopathy tries to detect, treat and prevent health problems by stretching, massaging and gently manipulating your muscles and joints.

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.

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. They might refer to themselves as primary healthcare practitioners.

Why people with cancer use it

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.

How you have it

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.

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

To have the treatment you may need to take off your clothes except your underwear. This is so the osteopath can see and work on your muscles and joints. 

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 for cancer

The National Council for Osteopathic Research (NCOR) promotes research into osteopathy in the UK.

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 are no UK trials at the moment looking at osteopathy and cancer. Most of the research that has been done looks at how osteopathy can help with back pain and headaches. But this is not in people who have cancer it was in the general population. 

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. 

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

Who shouldn’t have it

It is important that you tell your cancer specialist before you have osteopathy. Also, make sure your osteopath knows that you have cancer and what medication or treatment you are having. 

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

How much it costs

Seeing an osteopath privately usually costs between £45 to £60 for a 30 to 40 minute session. Your first appointment may cost more 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 might be able to refer you for osteopathic treatment on the NHS, but this varies between primary care trusts.

A word of caution

Osteopathy is not a cure or treatment for cancer. It may help with symptoms you are having such as pain or restricted movement. Always let the osteopath know that you have cancer before you start any treatment. 

It is very important that your osteopath is properly trained and qualified. Practitioners are required by law to register with the General Osteopathic Council (GOsC) 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.

Questions to ask your therapist

  • 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
Email: info@osteopathy.org.uk

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
Email: enquiries@osteopathy.org

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

  • Efficacy and safety of osteopathic manipulative treatment: an overview of systematic reviews
    D Bagagiolo and others
    BMJ Open Access, 2022

  • Complete guide to complementary and alternative cancer therapies
    American Cancer Society
    Second edition, 2009.

  • Osteopathy for primary headache patients: a systematic review
    F.Cerritelli and others
    Journal of Pain Research 2017:10 601-611

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

  • 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

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

Last reviewed: 
06 Jul 2022
Next review due: 
06 Jul 2025

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