When one first glances at osteopathic principles, there may not seem to be much depth to them. Philosophically there is nothing special about the principles. Actually many who are not osteopathic practitioners agree with osteopathic principles. What separates an osteopathic physician from others who agree with osteopathic principles is the application of the principles. Just like it is important for a runner to understand philosophically the principles of proper running, the philosophical understanding does not help if those principles are not put into place during running. Those who do not apply these principles are like the runner who understands proper running but then does not run or does not apply the principles during running.
Let’s discuss the first osteopathic principle: the interrelationship of structure and function and how I have progressed with this principle by applying it every day. The concept is simple, the structures of the body are designed for a specific function. An osteopathic physician studies in detail anatomy down to the most minute detail to best understand what is happening under their hands. This is a life long endeavor. Applying anatomy begins with understanding basic structures and landmarks on a living, dynamic body.
One of the most important steps in learning Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT) is learning to understand what normal is versus abnormal. In this case, I am referring to how a vitally healthy structure without any dysfunctions (normal) feels under one’s hands versus a structure that is operating suboptimally. What does a normal healthy muscle feel like? How about a normal healthy bone or fascia or joint? On the other hand, one must also understand what a tissue that is no longer normal feels like.
Once one has made sufficient progress understanding what a normal tissue feels like versus an abnormal tissue, then it is possible to progress to using one’s hands therapeutically. One can then begin to influence specific tissues and structures using a variety of methods to do their best to restore what was determined abnormal to normal. This in turn, enhances health. The more one progresses, the more one who is open to the idea understands that any tissue and any structure can become abnormal. The job of the osteopathic physician is to creatively figure out how to influence any structure. That is why understanding anatomy is so important and why one would be limited if their knowledge of anatomy is limited.
Over time, one then begins to observe the intricacies of how the body works in ways that is not understood conventionally. As a result, the osteopathic physician uses their best understanding of anatomy to form theories that explain those observations. For example, one then may begin to reason why releasing tension in the jaw bone itself may simultaneously cause the upper back to release as well or why releasing an organ in the abdomen simultaneously releases ribs in the upper back. It is getting to here in one’s application of this principle, that then one make’s a natural jump to the next osteopathic principle: the body is a unit with health comprising of mind, body, and spirit.
This process does not flow as well as described. One can be at varying levels of this throughout their career. Even a very skilled osteopathic physician can still be learning what normal versus abnormal feels like if they are willing to shift their approach or work with structures they were not mindful of before. This process of applied anatomy and physiology can continue for the rest of one’s career if one is willing to move beyond the philosophical understanding of osteopathic principles. Our understanding of structure and function has progressed since the principles were described over one hundred years ago, but the human body continues to function much in the same way it did before. This allows each generation of osteopathic physicians to add to the work of their predecessors.