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Visceral Osteopathy: Supporting Your Gut Health

Visceral osteopathy techniques being performed on a male patient.

4 min read

Visceral osteopathy techniques being performed on a male patient.

Gut health is fundamental to good health. The gut supplies nutrients, houses a large part of our immune system, and interacts with our brain to affect mental wellbeing. Visceral osteopathy is one way to support the health of your digestive tract. In this article, we look at how the gut affects health, and the role of visceral osteopathy in supporting gut function.

Gut health is the foundation for all health

The gut influences our health in some surprising ways.

It processes our food, of course, absorbing essential nutrients and excreting waste and toxins. In this way, it is the gateway for the building blocks that form our bodies.

But it also comprises around 80% of our immune function. It provides a physical and cellular defence against invading organisms.

And, beyond our physical health, we’re increasingly understanding the importance of the gut in mental health and neurological function. In fact, it has been termed our ‘second brain’.

The good bacteria living in our guts – our ‘microbiome’ – produce substances that influence appetite, mood, anxiety, pain, cognitive function and even our body clock.

And more than that, it seems they protect us against the development of neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

There are some 500 million neurons in the gut that connect with the brain through nerves such as the vagus nerve.

This nerve is a two-way communication route between gut and brain. It is essential to our parasympathetic (or ‘rest and digest’) functions. It influences, and is influenced by, our microbiome.

The complex interactions of this ‘gut-brain axis’ are becoming increasingly evident through research.

One study shows that prebiotics reduce stress in mice, but only if their vagus nerve is intact.

And, in fact, people with gut problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease, have reduced vagus nerve activity.

Looking after the health of our gastrointestinal tract and our microbiome, then, is one of the best things we can do for our overall health. And visceral osteopathy can help.

What is visceral osteopathy?

All osteopathic techniques aim to improve the way the body functions, and visceral osteopathy is the same.

Using their palpation skills, a visceral osteopath aims to restore good mobility, blood flow and lymphatic drainage to internal organs.

Layers of connective tissue encase the internal organs, and links them to the skeletal framework of the body. Visceral osteopaths treat the organs and their fascial casing to release restrictions. They also work on other parts of the body – the spine, chest or pelvis – to which the organs attach, since each influences the function of the other.

How do visceral problems occur?

The internal organs, or viscera, need to be able to move a little, to glide and slide over each other and the lining of the body cavities.

Various things can interrupt this normal mobility. For example, surgery leaves scarring and adhesions in the body tissues, which can limit visceral movement.

Posture can also affect how well the viscera function. Evidence shows that poor posture can lead to constipation, urinary incontinence, and poor digestion.

External factors can also compromise visceral health, including poor diet, dehydration, and excess alcohol consumption.

The College Practice’s founder, osteopath Suzanne Tugwell, finds visceral issues can form part of the solution for patients attending with back pain.

“I always include a visceral evaluation for patients who present with gut or diaphragm issues, or who have had abdominal or pelvic surgery, when they come for back pain treatment. Sometimes, this is the key that can unlock the problem.”

Suzanne also advises keen exercisers who struggle with gut issues to increase their electrolyte intake.

“Electrolytes, such as magnesium, potassium, chloride, sodium and bicarbonate, are vital to good health. They help maintain hydration and are active in muscle and nerve function – important for everyone, and particularly people who exercise hard.

“Electrolytes, especially potassium, are lost through sweat and urine. Since they’re needed for proper muscle contraction, if they’re not replenished – for example, if people only drink plain water after exercise – it can affect peristaltic muscle action in the gut, slowing down digestion.”

What does visceral treatment involve?

The techniques involved in visceral osteopathy are gentle and subtle in the most part.

First, the osteopath identifies areas of restriction or dysfunction. They then use gentle pressure to apply specific stretching and mobilisation of the tissues.

The osteopath uses specific manipulations for the different organs and their surrounding structures.

Although contact can be deep, a trained osteopath knows how to ensure it remains comfortable. With your permission, the osteopath may make contact directly onto the skin over the relevant organ. However, they can usually treat through light clothing if you prefer.

Visceral osteopathy for health

Rather than a separate discipline, visceral osteopathy forms part of many osteopathic treatments here at The College Practice.

If you think you might benefit from the inclusion of visceral osteopathy in your treatment, have a chat with your osteopath or get in touch with us to find out more.