Osteopathy only helps if you have pain, according to a review of the evidence.
Experts say the controversial treatment may be even better than seeing a physio for patients with musculoskeletal conditions.
But there’s no evidence it has benefits for children or for migraines or irritable bowel syndrome, the researchers say.
Osteopathy – first developed in the 1800s – has been considered as dubious at best by critics.
The practice involves the gentle manipulation of the tissues and bones of the body, involving moving, stretching, and massaging a person’s muscles and joints.
The review, conducted by Italian osteopaths, was based on dozens of trials involving around 3,750 volunteers.
Independent experts told MailOnline that most of the review’s primary studies had limited reliability due to ‘serious methodological issues’.
Italian osteopaths and doctors say there is ‘promising evidence’ that osteopathy can help with conditions such as back, neck and chronic non-cancer pain
Professor Edzard Ernst, a world-renowned expert in alternative medicine, formerly at the University of Exeter, said the findings “fly against science and common sense”.
He said they should be taken with “a good pinch of salt”.
Osteopathy is considered an “allied health profession” in the UK and patients can be referred to practice by NHS GPs in some parts of England.
There are 5,000 registered osteopaths across Britain. Private sessions can cost around £40.
The review, published in the BMJ openanalyzed nine prior review articles by osteopaths or physicians trained in osteopathy.
It was led by Donatella Bagagiolo, from the Italian School of Osteopathy in Turin.
What is osteopathy and does it really work?
Osteopathy is concerned with restoring and maintaining the balance of the body’s neuro-musculoskeletal systems.
Practitioners say misuse, injury and stress can all upset the balance between the body’s various systems – muscles, joints, ligaments and nerves.
The goal of the osteopath is to restore and preserve balance, relieving unnecessary pain and discomfort.
Some even claim it can help other unrelated issues, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), asthma, and impotence, but there’s no evidence to suggest this is the case.
Patients may be referred to osteopaths by NHS GPs, depending on the area in which they live.
An NHS spokesperson said: “There is some evidence to suggest that osteopathy may be effective for certain types of neck, shoulder or lower extremity pain, certain types of headaches and recovery from hip surgery. or knee.
“There is little or no scientific evidence that it is an effective treatment for conditions unrelated to the bones and muscles (musculoskeletal system), including asthma, menstrual pain and digestive disorders.”
The articles focused on the effectiveness of osteopathy in the treatment of lumbar, cervical and chronic non-cancer pain.
They also evaluated its effects on pediatric conditions – including cerebral palsy and scoliosis – migraines, tension headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.
They found that osteopathy is more effective than other approaches in reducing low back, neck and chronic non-cancer pain. Ms Bagagiolo described the results as “promising”.
Other approaches included no treatment at all, physiotherapy and other alternative medicine.
But there was “inconclusive evidence” that osteopathy helped with one of the other conditions, the team claimed.
Ms Bagagiolo said the studies – based on small sample sizes – have produced conflicting results.
The researchers wrote: “This review suggests that osteopathy may be effective in the management of musculoskeletal disorders, particularly with regard to… low back pain in pregnant women or those who have just give birth.
“In contrast, inconclusive evidence was drawn from analysis of the effectiveness of osteopathy on pediatric conditions, primary headaches and IBS.
“Nevertheless, based on the small number of studies, some of which are of moderate quality, our overview highlights the need for further well-conducted systematic reviews and clinical trials…to confirm and extend the use possibility of osteopathy under certain conditions as well as its safety.
Experts, however, criticized the study.
Professor Ernst told MailOnline: ‘Osteopathy is based on outdated assumptions that run counter to science and common sense.
“Most primary studies of osteopathy suffer from serious methodological problems that limit their reliability.
“Therefore, the evidence produced by an overview of systematic reviews should be taken with a significant pinch of salt.
“Even with the conditions for which osteopathy appears to have encouraging evidence, we must be clear that it is never the best therapy available today.”
Osteopathy consists of using stretching, massage and different movements to increase joint mobility, relieve muscle tension and reduce pain.
Practitioners aim to increase blood supply and help the body heal in certain areas.
Some practitioners also claim that osteopathy can help patients with IBS, migraines, and even excessive crying in babies. Infant belly rubs and cranial osteopathy – head massage – are commonplace in clinics claiming to solve problems.