If you are anything like me, the idea of seeing a new type practitioner can be daunting. And since I started seeing an osteopath regularly, I’ve had many questions from people about my experience which is why I’m putting together this list of 5 things to know before visiting an osteopath. I hope that it proves to be helpful and answers some of your questions regarding being treated by an osteopath and what to expect.
5 Things to Know Before Visiting An Osteopath
Visiting an osteopath is something I’ve been wanting to do for years. It was one of those things I needed a doctor’s referral for to have it covered by my insurance and I really hadn’t had the need to see my regular doctor for quite a while so never got around to getting the referral. Until this spring, when I found out my doctor was going to be retiring. Then I decided it was time I took care of a few of these things (including getting a booster shot and a referral for allergy testing), so went and I got my referral and made myself an osteopath appointment.
Please keep in mind as you read that this post was written from the point of view of a patient, not an osteopath and is not intended to be used as professional advice.
1. What is osteopathy?
This is the first thing you need to know before going to an osteopath – what the heck is osteopathy? The Canadian College of Osteopathy defines osteopathy as:
“A natural medicine which aims to restore function in the body by treating the causes of pain and imbalance. To achieve this goal the Osteopathic Manual Practitioner relies on the quality and finesse of his/her palpation and works with the position, mobility and quality of the tissues.”
That’s a fancy way of saying that an osteopath palpates areas of your body to listen or feel what is going on within the body through its bones, joints, muscles, fascia, etc. How they do that is explained more fully on The Canadian College of Osteopathy website:
“The ability to detect minute modifications in the quality of the tissues is the assessment skill that allows the Osteopathic Manual Practitioner to prioritize a patient’s course of treatment. These tissue qualities include congestion, dehydration, scarring, stiffness, density, and loss of resilience, as well as motility, which is an infinitesimal movement inherent to all living tissues. It is this sensing of the quality of the tissue—in combination with the position, mobility, and vitality of the tissue—that allows the Osteopathic Manual Practitioner to determine the tissues or systems that need immediate attention.”
This skill is what I like to call osteopathy voodoo or witchcraft, haha, as it can often feel like they are barely touching you and suddenly you can feel things inside your body moving and shifting. It’s amazing what they can feel through their fingertips and some very light touching!
How is it different than massage or chiropractic?
I’ve tried to put this in the most simplistic terms as I could manage. Certainly, all of these practitioners do more than what is stated here, but this is a very “bare bones” explanation that I hope paints a picture of why someone may need to see all three of these professionals for different reasons.
During a massage, an RMT uses massage techniques to manipulate soft tissue (like muscle).
During a chiropractic treatment, a Chiropractor focuses mainly on the musculoskeletal system, especially the spine.
During an osteopathy treatment, an Osteopath treats the whole body through manual readjustments, myofascial release and other physical manipulation of muscle tissue and bones.
I’ve never gone to a chiropractor, mainly because I know it’s important to be able to relax in order for the treatment to be effective, but I know I wouldn’t be able to relax. I’ve never had that concern going to the osteopath, and I’ve never had any experiences where I felt like a joint was “cracked” as one thinks of when imaging visiting a chiropractor (for the record, I know that isn’t what chiropractic care is always like, but that is what I always imagine when I think of going), though I’ve definitely had some spinal adjustments that resulted in some pops.
I have had lots of massages, and while osteopathy treatments can be as relaxing as a massage, they are completely different. There is no “kneading” or focused attention on relaxing tight muscles (at least not that I’ve experienced), but during your treatment, you can expect the practitioner to have his or her hands on you most of the time both while “listening” and also while making adjustments.
2. Why do I need to see an osteopath?
Well, possibly you don’t. But if you are reading this, I’m guessing you at least have an inclination that you might. For me, there were a few reasons I decided to start seeing one.
I had a 10-pound ovarian tumor when I was 17. As a result, I had my right ovary and fallopian tube removed and have a 6-inch abdominal scar. Needless to say, that surgery left me with some scar tissue and I have had really awful periods my entire life. Over the past 6-7 years, I’ve developed a weird “click” in my hip on that same side that sometimes hurts and I really wanted to be rid of it but physio, massage, and my doctor couldn’t figure out what the cause was.
I also got hit in the face with a hockey puck while watching a hockey game when I was 16 and haven’t been able to breathe through my left nostril in many, many years which is quite annoying.
And I often get a retracted eardrum when I fly because my right ear doesn’t like to pop or act as it should. I know know this is possibly related to the nose injury from the hockey puck, but prior to seeing an osteopath I just knew it was annoying.
Have I noticed any change since beginning treatment?
Back in the spring my number one driving force to go was my ear, which got completely blocked during a cold and never drained properly. Since most of my injuries are quite old (like nearly 20 years) it’s taking some time to get things sorted out, so I’ve been going once every 2-3 weeks since April or May.
I can now breath through my left nostril at least 50% of the time. My period pain and periods, in general, have improved dramatically, and last week when I went to Toronto, my right ear still got a little bit clogged up but it was much better than it’s been on previous flights and didn’t develop into a retracted eardrum.
I’m to the point now that when some of my issues go back to being the way they were before I started going I find them so much more annoying as I know what it’s like to live without them now. The 6 days I had to wait between getting back from Toronto and seeing her to clear the “crackle” in my ear seemed like forever. I don’t know how I went so many years with it without going crazy.
3. Choosing Your Osteopath
Once you’ve decided you want to see an osteopath, your next decision will be who to go see. As with any type of practitioner, not all osteopaths are created equally. As this profession relies heavily on the practitioner’s “touch” and the ability to feel what is going on within their patient’s body. I believe some people are born more sensitive to developing that touch and that along with the proper training will make them a more sensitive osteopath.
There are also many different techniques they can use to achieve the same thing so if you’ve gone to one osteopath and didn’t care for their type of adjustments, perhaps they just aren’t the right osteopath for you. It’s much like choosing a yoga instructor or anything else when you find the right one you’ll know!
I think the easiest thing to do when looking for an osteopath is to ask your friends and family or your doctor. Do you know someone who goes to an osteopath? If so, ask them if they like him or her and if they feel like they have helped them.
I chose my osteopath based on the recommendation of a friend who was having issues with her ear and it sounded like she was getting cranial-sacral treatment which is something I was pretty sure I needed. As a bonus, I was able to make my appointments online via her website and frankly, I hate making phone calls so that was a definite bonus.
If you don’t know anyone who goes to an osteopath but you have medical insurance, they might be a resource you can ask. We have Sunlife and right in their mobile app, you can get recommendations for different practitioners in your area. Otherwise, use good old Google to see who is available in your area.
When you do decide on an osteopath, instead of making just one appointment, make 2 or 3 appointments a few weeks apart right out of the gate. Many osteopaths get booked up in advance so you may have to wait a month or more for your first appointment so you want to be sure you have a couple of appointments lined up in case you need them. If you later decide you don’t need the additional appointments you can cancel them, but it’s nice to know you have them if you need them.
4. What to know before going to my appointment?
What should I wear?
I keep it simple and wear leggings and a tank top or t-shirt, my husband takes a pair of shorts to put on when he goes. I think as long as you are wearing something that allows you to move easily and allows the osteopath to be able to both feel and do their manual manipulations should be fine. If you show up wearing a thick pair of sweatpants and a bulky top they may ask you to change into shorts and a tshirt, much like they would if you went to a physiotherapy appointment.
Should I eat before I go?
My appointments are usually right before or right after lunch, and because I know she often has to palpate my pelvic and sacrum area I usually wait until afterward to have lunch. That way my guts aren’t trying to digest food while she’s trying to work. But don’t feel you need to skip meals, just maybe don’t head to the osteopath right after a trip to an all-you-can-eat buffet!
What can I expect during treatment?
Obviously, each osteopath is different and depending on what your issues are I’m sure this differs, but in my experience, I always start by telling my osteopath what is going on since my last appointment. Letting her know things that are better or worse, anything new she needs to know that have developed (like that time I randomly woke up and couldn’t move my neck. Thankfully I had an appointment booked for that week so she could fix me!), and anything coming up that she should know about. For instance, since I knew I was going to be flying last week, my last appointment before my trip she working on my head (ear and nose) a bit more to make sure it was going to behave as much as possible during the flight.
Next, I either stand or sit while she does some initial “tests” on the areas she is going to be working (usually my spine and hips) to see if and/or where things seem to be a bit stuck or are slightly out of place, etc. This normally looks like me doing a few forward folds and side bends, etc. Nothing crazy.
Each appointment is different, but there have only been a couple times that during the treatment I’ve had an adjustment that I would consider “rough”. Even still, I’ve never been nervous or worried about her hurting me. My husband who has a degenerative disc in his neck has had flare-ups as a result of a treatment, but even then he didn’t blame his osteopath. It’s a bit of a trial and error so as soon as she knew he was feeling a lot of pain she changed tactics to try and alleviate it.
Make sure you feel comfortable telling them to stop if something hurts too much or doesn’t feel right
It is very important that you choose someone you are comfortable with and feel comfortable telling them to stop if something is too much. Fortunately, I’ve not had that be an issue, but even if you see the best osteopath in the world, there is the chance they will start working on an area that is really sore and can cause some pain.
5. What can I expect after the treatment?
Depending on where they work and what kind of adjustments they make, you can feel sore for a day or two after a treatment. The first 3-4 times I went my hip would be quite sore for 1-2 days afterward, but now that rarely happens since that area is not quite as congested. You may also experience tenderness in some muscles or joints, and while I haven’t experienced this, some people experience headaches after a treatment.
If I have a lot of cranial-sacral work I will often feel a bit lightheaded or “fuzzy” for a few hours after treatment as those cranial juices (my terminology, haha, not hers) start moving around in there. After one such treatment, I left and went and got in my car and was then super confused about why I couldn’t get it to start. Until I realized I was in my husband’s car (he had an appointment right after me that day), hahaha. I had walked out of the office, saw his car and just jumped right in without realizing it wasn’t my car!
Much like massage therapy, if you drink lots of water before and after treatment it can really aid in recovery, and many osteopaths will recommend you avoid exercise for a day or two after treatment. I try to make all my appointments for Monday or Wednesdays as I teach fitness classes each evening but on Mondays, I teach yoga and Wednesday I teach a strength class, so on days when I’ve had an appointment, I purposefully do more coaching than exercising do allow my body time to heal from the adjustments.
How much does it cost?
You can expect the cost of an Osteopath appointment to run around the same as what you’ll pay in your area for a massage by an RMT. To give you an idea, our osteopath currently charges $95 for a 1-hour treatment.
I know this turned into a long post, but I hope it was helpful and answered some questions you might have about visiting an osteopath. Please remember, this post was written from the point of view of a patient, not an osteopath, so the information shared is based on my experience.
Have you been to an osteopath? If so, what was your experience like?