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About Osteopathy

Founded in 1874

Osteopathy is a science with possibilities as great as the magnitude of the heavens. It is a science dealing with the natural forces of the body. We work as osteopaths with the traditional principle in mind that the tendency in the patient's body is always toward the normal. There is much to discover in the science of osteopathy by working with the forces within that manifest the healing processes. These forces within the patient are greater than any blind force that can safely be brought to bear from without.

— William Garner Sutherland, D.O., D.Sc.(hon.)

Through the years there have been many new osteopathic treatments beyond Stills' articulatory techniques, his myofascial releases and Sutherland's cranial osteopathy. But the principles first articulated by Dr. Still and later Dr. Sutherland continue to stand:

Structure and function are interrelated.

The body desires to return to normal, to self heal and self regulate returning to health if given adequate resources.

Health consists of not only the physical body but the emotional and spiritual health of the individual and the three, physical, emotional and spiritual are all interconnected and will affect each other and the ability of the individual to heal.

Watch Dr. Walter Cohen's interview with Dr. Mimi Guarneri, MD FACC at the Guarneri Integrative Health at Pacific Pearl La Jolla to learn more about DOs, Osteopaths, and Osteopathy. You can book Dr. Walter Cohen at the Osteopathic Center by clicking here.

To know the history of Osteopathy is to gain understanding into what Osteopathy is.

Osteopathy was founded by Andrew Taylor Still, MD in the 1870s as an alternative to the risky medical therapies of the day which included pharmaceuticals that consisted of heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic and large doses of alcohol. Surgery was still a dangerous and painful proposition with no modern anesthetics nor any antibiotics should the surgical site become infected. How could medical outcomes be improved given these daunting challenges?

Dr. Still's eloquent solution to this dilemma arose from his observation that the structure of the body was directly related to its function. Dr. Still studied the anatomy of the body endlessly through his lifetime and found a perfection in its design which if supported and maintained would allow the body's own healing mechanisms to restore the body back to health.

While medications have come far, today they often manage symptoms versus offering resolution of underlying causes of disease and often have significant side effect profiles. Surgery, while much improved since the 1800s, still carries significant risks including unanticipated complications. By contrast Osteopathy often treats causes versus symptoms and has far less, if any risk or lasting side effects. The physician should always "first do no harm" by exhausting lesser invasive treatments before advancing to other options. Osteopathy's use and application are therefore as relevant today as they were in the time of Dr. Still.

In considering the relation between structure and function, Dr. Still started with the most obvious structure – the bones – which is why he named the science "osteo"(after the greek for "bone") and "pathy" (latin for "suffering").  But he realized the importance of treating all systems of the body including the lymphatics (which regulates both waste removal and immunological response) cardiac, especially the vasculature, respiratory, gastrointestinal, reproductive, etc.

Today, as in Still's time, the osteopath recognizes the musculoskeletal system (bones, muscles, and connective tissues) as all having a "normal" placement that preserves the overall health of the entire organism. When the musculoskeletal system falls out of "normal" the entire organism's function may be compromised and suffer a localized or much broader generalized disorder. 

Dr. Still saw the vasculature system as the "great river of life" carrying vital oxygen and nutrients to damaged organs and tissues and the veins along with the lymphatics, removing metabolic waste. The lymph system is seen as ubiquitous, pervading every place in the body. Efficient function of the lymphatics was seen by Dr. Still "as a matter life or death itself."

Nerve function is addressed by alleviating obstructions, impingements, irritations, or overstimulation. Many of today's most common illnesses such as high blood pressure, GI complaints and respiratory functional compromise are the result of an imbalance between the "fight or flight" and "rest and digest" halves of our autonomic nervous system. As the name would suggest, this neural system controls all the so called automatic functions of the body, blood pressure, respiratory function, digestion and every organ and blood vessel within the body.

Organ dysfunction can be addressed either by specifically working with individual organs or by treating the systems supporting and surrounding it such as the vasculature, lymphatics, nerve supply and fascia.

Dr. Still challenged his students and all who have followed to know what "normal" feels like in the body and by using the hands restore the body to this natural state of balance. While Still employed techniques still used in a modern osteopathic treatment such as gross mobilizations of boney structure including articulations, adjustment of the bones and release of the connective tissue (the fascia), what some refer to as biomechanical forces, he also appreciated the more subtle forces of nature at work in the human system and as his depth of understanding matured he employed these techniques equally.

Dr. Still understood and utilized these forces of nature and passed this knowledge onto those who attended his school including perhaps his greatest student, Dr. William G. Sutherland. One day at the American School of Osteopathy, now A.T. Still University, Sutherland noted the cranial bones of a disarticulated skull were beveled like the gils of a fish. He asked a simple question – why? His conclusion was the beveling allowed the bones to move slightly with one another.  But this defied the conventional wisdom of the day which suggested the skull fused together by about age 25.

Thus began a thirty year plus research project to prove the cranial bones did not move. This hypothesis failed and he concluded through exhaustive experiments on himself that the bones of the head did indeed have a subtle motion important to health. He observed the brain and central nervous system have an inherent motility, an inexplicable motion, which transmits through the cranial spinal fluid and into more distant structures and tissues within the body.

Dr. Sutherland realized there is mobility in the cranial bones, the sacrum independent of the pelvis, the membranes in the head and the cranial spinal fluid. As his work progressed over decades Dr. Sutherland came to realize there were forces of nature, as Dr. Still had taught, that were at work in health and they could be harnessed for the body to set up its own therapeutic protocols, far more thoroughly, eloquently and with greater sophisticated than any a clinician could perform utilizing their intellect working piecemeal through different structures of the body. Sutherland's work came to be known as Cranial Osteopathy.

Dr. Andrew Taylor Still
Dr. William G. Sutherland
Core Principles

"Sickness is an effect caused by the stoppage of some supply of fluid or quality of life."

Andrew Taylor Still


In disease, "we suffer from two causes: want of supply and the burdens of dead deposits."

Andrew Taylor Still

The Philosophy and Mechanical Principles of Osteopathy


"Osteopathy is to me a very sacred science. It is sacred because it is a healing power through all nature."

Andrew Taylor Still

Osteopathy Research and Practice

"Is God an Architect? If so why not be governed by the plan, specification, building and engineering of that Architect in our work as healers? When we conform to and work by the laws and specifications of this Architect, we get the results required. This is the foundation stone on which Osteopathy stands."

Andrew Taylor Still

Osteopathy Research and Practice

Antique medicine bottle with label indicating 25% alcohol content. Pharmaceuticals consisting of heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic was also common in the 1800s.

Antique medicine bottle with label indicating 25% alcohol content. Pharmaceuticals consisting of heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic was also common in the 1800s.

Display of disarticulated skull to see how the bones connect

Display of disarticulated skull

Video Interview
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