What on earth is an osteopath and what do they actually do? All your questions answered.

Osteopaths consult approximately 75,000 Australians per week nationally.

But with thousands of Australians regularly seeking this type of treatment for their aches and pains, many of us may be wondering what an osteopath actually does, and in what instances would we actually need to consult one ourselves.

A quick Google search will tell you that “an osteopath is a hands-on manual therapist that specialises in the treatment of the musculoskeletal system”, which to us, still seems like quite a vague description.

We know it’s a non-invasive, drug-free treatment which aims to improve physical health and wellbeing, but how do we know when to choose an osteopath over a different allied healthcare practitioner?

To get the low-down on all things osteopathy, we spoke to Perth osteopath Dr Georgia Ellis to answer all our questions.

Dr Ellis is well-known in the osteopathy field for her work in a city practice, but she also treats country communities and farmers through ‘satellite clinics’ in rural Australia.

Dr. Georgia Ellis (Osteopath)
Dr Georgia Ellis is an osteopath based in Perth.

What is osteopathy? 

Dr Ellis explained that osteopathy employs the philosophy that “the body is a unit” - where the therapist considers the function of the body as a whole entity "regardless of location of discomfort".

In other words, osteopaths look at how our skeleton, joints, muscles, nerves, circulatory system, connective tissue and internal organs function as a whole body unit before diagnosis and treatment.

Dr Ellis said that it is not uncommon for people to misunderstand the role of an osteopath, because they don’t apply a “one size fits all” method of treating complaints.

"Osteopaths consider a patient complaint with unique attention to the complex interrelationships between the body’s structure and the way it functions," Dr Ellis said.


She added that the aim is to "acknowledge relationships of the body, mind, emotions and spirit" to ultimately "restore the body's self-healing and repairing mechanisms by advising patients on lifestyle, diet, stress management techniques and exercise/rehabilitation."

How is an osteopath different to a chiropractor or physiotherapist?

While all three are manual therapists who can suggest exercise and lifestyle modifications as treatment, Dr Ellis said the main point of difference when it comes to osteopathy is a "big picture" approach, where the entire body's function is taken into account.

"Osteopaths can use techniques to influence joints, muscles, nerves, circulation, connective tissue and internal organ’s function, so we try to have an all-encompassing “big picture” approach to
diagnosis and management," she said.

Woman with back pain rubbing back with fingers, osteopathy treatment
Osteopaths employ a “big picture” approach to diagnosis and management of pain.

What do osteopaths treat?

Dr Ellis explained that her osteopathy patients have presented with a number of varying health concerns, such as:

  • Lower back pain including sciatic pain, sacroiliac joint pain, coccyx pain
  • Neck pain and cervicogenic headaches
  • Stiffness related to osteoarthritis
  • Mobility issues at shoulders, knees, hips
  • Inflammatory conditions tendinitis, bursitis
  • Musculoskeletal complaints related to pregnancy and post-natal patients
  • Work-related injuries
  • Sports-related injuries
  • Musculoskeletal discomfort predisposed to by digestion issues

"Patients can range from very young to very old; very fit to sedentary; sewing enthusiast to weekend warrior to elite athlete," Dr Ellis added.

So, common symptoms and conditions people may experience day-to-day could be treated by an osteopath, including neck pain, sports injuries, headaches and migraines, whiplash, postural problems, low back pain, knee and heel pain, shin splints, management of arthritis and occupational injuries.

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Can osteopaths actually diagnose?

"Yes absolutely!" Dr Ellis said.

"Osteopaths are highly skilled, university trained, primary allied health care professionals. We use the information our patients give us, with the appropriate clinical examinations, to formulate a diagnosis.

"If the osteopath is concerned by the presentation or thinks it warrants further investigation, they will refer appropriately to other health care practitioners."

She added that following diagnosis, an osteopath will tailor a specific treatment plan to the patient to get them on the the road to a pain-free lifestyle.

Osteopathy treatment: two woman running
"Our aim is to return our patients to function, and without continual intervention from the osteopath," Dr Ellis said. Image: Getty.

Do all osteopaths deal with the same injuries?

Dr Ellis said it's common for osteopaths to develop specific clinical interests, and therefore specialise in treating specific injuries or complaints - including sports injuries, chronic pain, paediatric, even animal biomechanics.

"In addition to general osteopathic training, osteopaths can, of course, have specific clinical interests in a focus area, or for unique patient groups and needs," she said.

"This can range from specific interests in sport and athletes, pregnancy, post-natal health, pelvic and abdominal complaints, vestibular dysfunction, respiratory issues, headaches, workplace safety and ergonomics."

"There are also post graduate qualified osteopaths that have done further study in paediatric osteopathy, pain science and chronic pain, animal biomechanics (canine and equine osteopathy) and many more," she added.


On a typical trip to an osteopath, after diagnosis, a wide range of treatment techniques will be explored and employed, which range from "massage, joint articulation, joint manipulation, visceral
and myofascial release, balanced ligamentous techniques, and biodynamic and cranial techniques," Dr Ellis said.

"As an adjunct to the hands-on treatment, the osteopath will work with the patient to maintain their treatment through education, advice on ergonomics, advice on exercise and rehabilitation, diet and lifestyle suggestions," she added.

"Every patient and injury is different and multifactorial.

"Something as simple as the chronicity of the injury is one determinant of how many treatments a patient may require. Our aim is to return our patients to function, and without continual intervention from the osteopath.

"Educating our patients on avoiding aggravating factors, the science behind pain, general advice on health and wellbeing and exercise prescription/rehabilitation are all offered to help the
patient maintain their own health."

What are some common misconceptions about osteopathy?

“Oh, osteopathy! That’s bones, right?” 

"The most common misconception is that osteopaths only work with bones," Dr Ellis said.

"People tend to assume that we work only with the “misalignment” of bones; or disease processes of the bones like osteoporosis or osteoarthritis.

"Osteopaths focus on how the skeleton, joints, muscles, nerves, circulation, connective tissue and internal organs function as one whole entity," she explained.

"Explaining osteopathy simply is something we need to improve on to help people identify when to seek out our assistance."

"The ability to explain osteopathy in one swift sentence is quite tricky... The beauty of being an osteopath is seeing such complexity and variability from patient to patient," she added.

“I’ve not heard of osteopathy, it must be new?”

According to Osteopathy Australia, the profession of osteopathy was established as a new philosophy of medicine in 1874 by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still.

The first school for osteopathic medicine, the American School of Osteopathy, opened in 1892 in Kirksville, Missouri.

There have been osteopaths practising in Australia for over 100 years.

Osteopaths are university trained, primary health care professionals. To qualify as an osteopath, you need to complete at least a four-year program of study in osteopathy.

You can make an appointment directly with an osteopath, without a referral. But it's important to remember osteopaths are not doctors and if you're seeking medical advice, please consult a qualified medical practitioner.

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