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The Different Styles of Osteopathy

8 May 2016 | Marcus Daws | Uncategorised

When you book to see an osteopath, do you know what to expect? Although much of modern osteopathic training is based on an increasingly standardised research-based approach to clinical evaluation and treatment, the way an osteopath approaches your condition in practice may still vary.

When you present to your osteopath, the initial consultation is an information gathering session. We are looking at your posture, how you move, and your description of the condition in order to build a picture in our minds of what might be happening. The next point of diagnosis will come from laying hands on the body and moving joints passively to gather information from the affected areas.  Once armed with a diagnosis, treatment goals are to restore good function to the body, but how is this approached practically?

There are several distinct styles of osteopathic treatment and whilst some osteopaths will draw on several of them, others will focus essentially on one form only.

Structural Osteopathy

This is the most common approach to osteopathic treatment and is the foundation upon which modern training is based. It is where the osteopath will use manual techniques to affect the musculoskeletal system. Joints are moved, muscles are stretched and in so doing the treatment effect can reach into the body and affect the nervous system, blood supply or organ function. It is based upon a wide body of modern scientific research and is continually developing as a treatment style.

Classical Osteopathy

Although this also involves a structural approach it is based on more traditional principles. Osteopathy was founded in the US in 1874 by Andrew Taylor Still and then further developed by John Martin Littlejohn who also introduced osteopathy to England in 1911. They developed a system which mobilises the body in a specific manner, such that it generates an impact on the underlying physiology.

The first osteopaths were primary healers who were concerned with treating systemic illness such as typhoid and diphtheria, rather than the narrower musculoskeletal approach of modern structural osteopathy. Classical treatment is based on a specific routine known as the ‘body adjustment,’ the entire body is involved, and more specific treatment can be directed as appropriate. Unfortunately the art of this form of osteopathy is not so well understood today, and there are only a few osteopaths remaining who use this approach exclusively.

Cranial Osteopathy

This is a more subtle approach which involves a gentle ‘hold’ of the patient to interact with more subtle energies and the body’s fluid dynamics. To find out more about this form of osteopathy, please refer to our previous blog “What is Cranial Osteopathy and what can it treat?”

Visceral Osteopathy

This approach looks at the relationship between the physical structure of the body and the organs, such as the digestive tract or respiratory system. Through the stresses imposed by poor posture, or diet or lifestyle pressures, the organs can build areas of tension which can then lead to referred ‘viscero-somatic’ pain, an example of this is the intense groin pain created by an acute kidney infection. In this case treatment over the area of pain may be ineffective whereas direct manipulation of the kidney may stimulate the healing response needed to relieve the pain. Visceral treatment can aid motility of the digestive tract and good function of abdominal and thoracic organs.


Good osteopathic treatment is based on the principle that structure governs function, and vice-versa.  Unlike other forms of manual therapy, all osteopaths will tend to have a “whole body”, integrated approach to assessment and treatment.

An osteopath will draw on a variety of techniques to make a change to the body in a bid to restore good function or structure. The way they interpret their findings and seek to make this change varies depending on their training, experience and technique preference of the osteopath.  The principles that govern the reaction of the body to treatment and the healing process overall remain common to all osteopaths.