from ‘fitness life’ issue 2 - AUG/SEPT 2002
Osteopathy, and in particular cranial osteopathy, can help the body rectify severe chronic and acute maladies by a means of subtle, almost invisible form of manipulation. Anya Kussler visits osteopath Andrew Gibson to find out how this ‘scientific art’ works.
From what people told me who’d had osteopathy treatments before, it is one of those versatile therapies’s that can help mend anything from bad backs and asthma to ear infections and colic in babies. But as to how this non-invasive form of treatment – hailed by many as ‘so subtle you can hardly feel it’ – actually works, I remained enlightened. So to satisfy my curiosity and possibly rid myself of a few niggles in the process, I made my way to the Ponsonby Osteopathic Clinic in Auckland, for an assessment and treatment with Osteopath Andrew Gibson. Andrew trained at the British School of osteopathy in London, immigrated to New Zealand in 1996 and went on to look after the double gold winning boardsailing team at the World Champs in 1998. Today, he still treats a number of New Zealand’s elite sportsmen and women. In fact, he treats adults, children and babies who experience any of the following conditions: ear infection, asthma, back and neck pain, muscular aches, headaches and migraines, sciatica, joint pain, sports injuries, sinusitis, digestive disorders, chronic ear infection, birth trauma, tinnitus, depression, low energy levels and more.
So how can one therapy have such wide-ranging effects? First of all, Andrew stresses, it is important to understand that osteopaths see the body as a ‘whole’ an “integrated unit whose ability and function depends upon the harmonious interrelations of each body system: the nerves, vital organs, blood vessels and musculo-skeletal system”. Physical and emotional stress or poor posture, he says, can effect the musculo-skeletal system, which can then cause pain or impair nerve function in other parts of the body and negatively impact on the vital organs, as well as the respitoy and circulatory systems. Talking of the circulatory system, one important osteopathic principal is that ‘the artery is supreme’. In other words, osteopaths recognise that well-oxygenated blood is crucial to a well-functioning body, which is why it is imperative for the osteopath to have supreme awareness of the body’s fluid dynamics.
“Osteopathy is based on the premise that the body has the ability to heal itself”, Andrew explains, describing the mechanics of his trade. “It uses a series of manual techniques to ease muscle tension and restore bone and joint function to strengthen the body systems and restore its self-healing capability.”
Andrew employs both forms of osteopathy, working structurally (like a ‘panel beater’), and also cranially, which he says is like doing the delicate job of a watchmaker. His decision on which method to use depends entirely on the individual – the type and severity of their condition, their sensitivity to pain and factors such as how they are feeling on the day of the treatment. For example: a knot in ones shoulder may require a more hands-on, structural approach first before implementing the subtler cranial therapy to get down to the underlying cause for this muscular restriction, be it emotional stress or bad postural habits when sitting in front of the computer.
Back to top
“Osteopathy is not about band-aiding problems - we aim to get to the root of the problem, sometimes having to work a bit like a detective!”
Each osteopath, Andrew says, differs slightly in how they treat a condition according to their preferences and experiences. “The theory of osteopathy is scientific, but how you apply it is an art and as such varies from practitioner to practitioner,” is how Andrew likes to put it. He, for example, tends to be more cranially inclined.
Cranial osteopathy was developed in the 1930’s by US osteopath Dr. William Garner Sutherland after he discovered that, contrary to common belief at the time, the skull is not a fixed, rigid structure but designed to move, just like the spine. The cranium’s 26 bones fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and have a constant rhythmic movement, which is felt as a contraction and expansion of the skull. Dr. Sutherland also discovered that the cerebrospinal fluid constantly fluctuates around the brain and travels down to the spinal cord about 10 to 14 times per minute in a healthy person, but less in an ill individual. The cranial osteopath is able to determine these fluctuations through subtle touch, and offer help accordingly. “Cranial osteopathy is ideal for people who are sensitive to pain because it’s non-manipulative and pain free.”
Andrew’s own passion for cranial osteopathy was fuelled when, whilst studying osteopathy in London, he worked on a voluntary project with special needs children, who had conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis. “Watching the osteopaths working cranially to literally ‘unwind’ these children in front of my eyes was a great inspiration. Whilst I didn’t have the palpatory skills to feel what was happening, the results of the treatment were unmistakable. Cranial osteopathy is a hard modality to teach and learn, and so this experience is what kept me going on the long journey of learning to work with osteopathy in the cranial field.”
Just like the manner of osteopathy treatment depends on the individual and their condition, the results and number of treatments needed depend on how severe the trauma is, or how long a chronic condition has taken to develop. For some people, for example, four to eight treatments with two to three-week intervals may be enough for not-so-severe conditions.
Andrew gives me a real-life example of how osteopathy- and more specifically cranial work – can successfully restore health. Rebecca Winter is a 64-year-old artist who’d temporarily been living in Britain. A mild pain developed in her right upper arm, but became both severe and constant. The local doctor diagnosed a pinched nerve in the third and fourth vertebrae of Rebecca Winter’s neck, the result of a horse riding accident 30yrs earlier. The recommendation was to see if it corrected itself, and if not, then to have physiotherapy. “A visit to the local osteopath confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis and I had two regular treatments before returning to New Zealand. Alarmingly, before the flight I developed pins and needles in the fingers of my right hand, which continued throughout the long-haul journey.”
Back to top
On arrival in New Zealand, Rebecca visited Andrew. “His gentle, intelligent awareness immediately set me at ease. I was lying prone, and Andrew cradled my head in his cupped hands and encouraged me to let it sink relaxed and heavy. That is all, really. But every so often Andrew’s fingers moved lightly as if they were playing some invisible cords. He said afterwards he was hardly aware that he was doing it.”
Several days later Rebecca says she felt the first easing of the pins and needles in the fingers. “In the last session I experienced weightlessness, as if the body had dissolved as it responded to the deep healing relaxation induced by the treatment. When I returned to Britain several weeks later I was entirely pain-free and buoyant with a strong body again.”
Andrew has the following to say about Rebecca’s treatment: “Some patients may perceive sensations of warmth or tingling; others may experience a feeling of being very relaxed, which can be described as weightlessness or sinking into the table. Some are only aware of my hands making contact with them and do not feel anything during the treatment.” But the one think that all patients have in common, Andrew adds, is how they feel after the treatment, and even those who do not feel anything during the treatment may confess that they no longer have pain or that stiffness has changed. “It is not the actual treatment process that attracts people, but rather the enormously wide range of conditions which can be effectively treated using such a non-evasive technique.”
My own experience of ‘Andrew the Artist’ is very similar to Rebecca’s. The first question he asks me when taking me to the ‘drawing board’ is to give him a rundown of my medical history. This includes anything that will give him an idea of my state of health – whether I’ve had any major injuries, operations or chronic conditions, or am taking medication or supplements, and so on.
Next, in order to check my overall range of motion and posture, I am to face to door of Andrews practice, then move my head to the left and right; bend forwards and backwards. Andrew immediately observes that I am more restricted on my right side, probably due to the fact that I’m right-handed and my computer mouse and I spend a lot of time together. As he proceeds, gently working his hands from my neck down to my lower back, Andrew senses rigidity and shortening in my sixth and seventh vertebrae, and my seventh thoracic vertebra, which confirms his diagnosis.
To relieve the worst of this stiffness, lengthen my muscles and mobilise my joints, Andrew decides to do some structural work on me first, applying gentle pressure and stretching the affected area.
Then it’s time for some cranial work. I lie on my back and Andrew's hands lightly encapsulate the back and sides of my head. Rebecca’s sentiments about this experience are mine exactly as I; too, sink into a pleasant state of weariness that accompanies me for the rest of the day. As for the fluctuations Andrew picks up: they once again confirm that I have a slight weakness in my right side, but in particular in the right side of my face. He further senses that I may be susceptible to ear infections – this is interesting because I suffered from glue ear as a very young child and ear pain or clogged eardrums are usually the first indication that my immune system is taking a beating and/or I have a cold coming on. Overall, though, their verdict is that I exude vitality and enjoy a great state of health (oh, joy!).
In addition to gently coaxing the body into self-help mode, Andrew finishes off the session by giving me a couple of exercises to do at home that will help take the strain off my neck, traps and shoulders. (Please note that Andrew does not usually ‘prescribe’ DIY exercises after the first treatment, as people may not have the self-awareness yet to perform the appropriatley and so may exacerbate their problem. However, as I’m a journo in a rush to write an article on osteopathy, he makes an exception to the rule.) One such exercise is what Andrew calls the funky chicken. It basically involves reaching your neck forward as far as possible, then pulling it back so you virtually have a double chin. A good look! “That’s why I tell my clients to do this one at the traffic lights, “ the friendly Brit laughs.
Back to top
Andrew is also a great fan of recommending restorative yoga poses to his clients, not less because of his predilection for this discipline. It’s a direct result of Andrew’s own personal osteopathic success story: following a sporting accident in 1997, in which a heavy weight fell on his back, Andrew says he experienced months of moderate pain on a daily basis, initially requiring medication to allow him to sleep. A compression fracture of the seventh thoracic vertebrae was subsequently diagnosed. Says Andrew: The shock and surprise of how this injury affected me both emotionally and physically, especially as I was young and healthy, did give me invaluable insight into what it is like for patients suffering from chronic pain. This involved particulary the physiological issues, for example the fear as to whether I was ever going to be pain free again, as well as the frustration of needing to allow time to heal.”
Osteopathic treatments gave Andrew significant pain relief and improved the function of his thoracic spine. But in addition to that, he also felt the need to improve his back on a daily basis with rehabilitation exercises. Hence he turned to a colleague within his clinic that was a yoga teacher. Initially working on a one-on-one basis doing very basic yoga, they worked to release the trauma from Andrew’s body, which proved to be enormously effective in getting his body moving again and also helping him let go of the emotional issues that may accompany long standing ailments. “Having reaped the benefits to the degree that I have from yoga means that recommending restorative yoga exercises is an integral part of the treatment,” he says.
Essentially, Andrew’s experience of this non- manipulative form of treatment has greatly impacted on how he treats his patients: “I don’t want someone jumping on my back with great force to treat me, so I don’t do that to my patients. I believe you treat how you like to be treated.”
Postscript: After my second session a week later, Andrew and I are both pleased to confirm that while my upper neck vertebrae are still slightly compressed (a condition that must have taken years of computer work to develop), I am already significantly less restricted and freer through my med and lower back. And as for that burst of vitality….
Read more articles we've written
From ‘Kids Life’ Issue 9 - May 2005
From ‘Fitness Life’ Issue 19 - July 2005
Back to top