Could osteopathy be a secret weapon to help curb back pain?

Osteopathy is a form of manual therapy that could help ease back pain. It corrects misalignment in the body and promotes overall wellbeing.

The Medical Journal of Australia claims that 80% of the population will suffer some form of back pain throughout their lives. Of these, 20% will develop chronic, or ongoing, pain. Osteopathy is a form of manual therapy that could help ease back pain. It corrects misalignment in the body and promotes overall wellbeing.

What exactly is osteopathy?
Osteopathy is a field of manual therapy that recognises the body as a whole, rather than a collection of parts working separately.

Osteopathy treats ailments through analysing biomechanics. Biomechanics refers to the way the body moves, from the joints and skeleton, to the muscles that overlie it all. “The study of body biomechanics recognises that movement in one area will require or cause movement in another area,” Claire Richardson, B.Sci (Clin.Sci) M.H.S (Osteo), elaborates.

“For instance, when we walk, our hips and ankles both need to work together to create easy and optimal movement. An example of poor biomechanics whilst walking might be a stiff ankle joint, which causes a lack of hip movement and alters the way we walk.”

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Osteopaths can help with chronic and ongoing pain

Many Australians mistakenly believe the effect of ageing on their body's joints is untreatable and inevitable.

Osteopathy techniques aim to maintain your health, mobility, balance, reduce further joint wear and tear, and help keep you active and independent. It can help with back pain and more.

Common techniques
Using skilled evaluation, diagnosis and a wide range of hands-on techniques, osteopaths identify dysfunction in the body. Osteopathic treatment uses techniques such as stretching and massage to target soft tissues (muscles, tendons and ligaments).

When treating back pain, an osteopath will apply manual therapy such as massage, stretching and manipulation (depending on the condition) and prescribe a rehabilitation plan (stretching or strengthening, for instance).

Osteopaths are well placed to identify triggers of back pain, ranging from stress to posture, and they may advice you of helpful lifestyle modifications.

“The key aspect of osteopathic care is looking at the whole body,” says Chris Reeves, B.Sc (Clin. Science), M.H.Sc (Osteopathy). "Treatment is very holistic rather than focusing on just the injury or problem area. Osteopaths train to assess, diagnose and treat patients to reduce pain and injuries with the aim to help the body function well.”

How can you tell if your health professional is qualified?
Under Australian law, osteopaths are required to be qualified (five year university training), maintain government registration and insurance, uphold high professional standards and complete annual professional education.

With just over 2,000 registered osteopaths operating in Australia (75% covering NSW and Victoria), it’s becoming an increasingly appealing healthcare option.

Indeed, manual therapies of all persuasions, including physiotherapy and chiropractic therapy, have seen a surge in popularity; the number of students entering manual therapy studies has doubled in the last few years. Australian universities currently see 150 osteopathy graduates each year.

Osteopathy: misconceptions and myths
Antony Nicholas is the Chief Executive of Osteopathy Australia, the national professional association representing the majority of osteopaths across Australia. In the nine years he has served as CEO, Antony believes the reputation of osteopathy has improved, but recognises there are still hurdles to overcome.

“Despite the growth in the profession, there’s still a level of misunderstanding or ignorance about the work of osteopaths among the public and other health practitioners,” he says.

“We constantly remind the Australian health community and patients that osteopathy is an important part of Australian primary healthcare. Osteopaths are government-registered practitioners who complete a minimum of five years' university training in anatomy, physiology, pathology, diagnosis skills and osteopathic techniques. They are trained to recognise conditions that require medical referral and to perform standard examinations of the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous systems.”

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Osteopathy treatment can help you get back to what you love doing

Claire Richardson agrees: “It’s very important to understand that osteopaths are primary healthcare practitioners who work alongside other health professionals. We are big believers in multidisciplinary approaches and enjoy working with GPs, physios, podiatrists and paediatricians."

"The kind of professionals we would often refer to or involve in a ‘team care’ approach would be GPs, sports medicine doctors, exercise physiologists, neurologists, rheumatologists, psychologists, Pilates instructors and personal trainers.”

Common reasons for a trip to the osteopath
Claire Richardson says the majority of cases she treats deal with musculoskeletal issues: lower back pain, neck pain, headaches and sports injuries.

If you experience any of the following, an osteopath will be able to assess the symptoms and advise a course of action.

  • Sharp, biting pain that alters the way you sit, walk or stand.
  • Alterations to bowel or bladder habits associated with back pain.
  • Tingling or numbness in the legs or pelvic floor.

Ageing on the body can cause arthritis and joint swelling, poor balance, general stiffness and pains.

“We only have one back, and it is the cornerstone and tethering point for all of your limbs and your head,” osteopath Chris Reeves says. “Our back plays a part in almost every movement that we undertake, so back health should be treated seriously!”

Like Claire, back complaints make up the majority of Chris’s osteopathic work, and he stresses the importance of prevention.

“To prevent general back pain, it’s vital to keep mobile, introduce gentle exercises and to slowly build up to strengthening activities,” he explains.

“The classic example is to get out and get walking. It’s cheap, and easy, and you can slowly increase distance and pace as you get comfortable. Cycling, aquatic exercises and aerobics are also great non-weight bearing exercises to consider.”


Doing exercises at home can help strengthen your back. Always speak to your health professional before beginning a new exercise regimen

4 tips for maintaining healthy biomechanics

  1. During repetitive tasks or heavy labour, be sure to vary your rhythm, take regular breaks and have a stretch.
  2. Stay hydrated. Sip water frequently rather than guzzling sporadically. Excessive water consumption in a short period, combined with excess tea and coffee drinking, may increase urinary output and promote dehydration.
  3. Eat sufficient protein to aid tissue repair.
  4. Ensure you have a supportive mattress. A medium-firm mattress is best as it supports the spine while avoiding joint discomfort. Note: There is a difference between ‘firm support’ and ‘firm feel’; look for a mattress that promises firm support with a comfortable feel.

Is osteopathy covered under Medicare or private health insurance?
Osteopathic treatments are covered by Medicare's Chronic Disease Management (CDM) Plans and by most private health funds. Osteopaths are registered providers for Department of Veterans’ Affairs patients, and assist with state workers’ compensation schemes and motor accident insurers.

To visit an osteopath you don’t necessarily need a referral from your GP, except for certain government-rebated programs.

To find your local osteopath visit www.osteopathy.org.au and search via postcode, distance or languages spoken.

Have you ever seen an osteopath? Join the conversation below.