You go to my head ...

Paediatric osteopathy provokes contention. It is also helping children, says Anna Selby
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are a dozen beds in the room, each with a child or a baby on it. Some are lying still, but most are flailing their limbs or shouting - the noise is deafening. Each child is being treated by a paediatric osteopath; cases range from glue ear and colic to autism.

Ryan is a blond, blue-eyed three-year-old. He has cerebral palsy. The osteopath is holding Ryan's head at the base of his skull. To the untutored eye, it looks as though very little is happening. Actually, there's a lot happening at the Osteopathic Centre for Children (OCC).

While osteopathy has been around for 30 years, paediatric osteopathy is a quite new - and contentious - area. There have not yet been the long- term studies needed to make it acceptable to the medical profession, who mainly regard it as "the laying on of hands".

The OCC's case is not helped by the rise of cranio-sacral therapy, or cranial osteopathy, which is rapidly becoming the latest alternative health bandwagon. While Stuart Korth and his team at the OCC are qualified osteopaths, many people who call themselves cranial osteopaths do not have a diagnostic background at all. It is not uncommon for chiropodists (and beauticians) to go on a weekend course and come back calling themselves cranial osteopaths.

Ryan has been attending the OCC since he was 11 weeks old. "He was a very sick baby," says his father. At one stage he was having more than 100 fits a day. He would go into a spasm during which his head would jerk on to his left hip. He was on steroids, being fed through a nasal gastric tube, and never made a sound. No one can repair brain damage, but now he is on hardly any medication. He has not had a fit in 14 months and is a good feeder.

"I put a lot of his progress down to the OCC. I even ran the marathon to raise money for them. I know what struggles my son goes through every day. Twenty-six miles is nothing in comparison."

Stuart Korth is more cautious. "We don't promise miracles. The first thing is a diagnosis. We use palpation - one of the oldest forms of diagnosis - but, of course, we also use it as a form of treatment. That's where we differ from the mainstream.

"We get a lot of screaming babies, who don't sleep and are vomiting a lot. There are many possible reasons for this. We have to know when not to treat and when to refer on - hence the importance of a proper diagnostic training. But if a baby is screaming constantly because during birth the vagus nerve [which serves the digestion] got trapped where it comes through the skull, there is going to be a problem feeding. That's something a skilled pair of hands can treat, putting the child into a state of balance."

Osteopathy for children works on the same principles as that for adults - undoing the stresses on the body that put it out of balance. In this case, the stresses come from birth itself. A new-born baby goes through tremendously compressive forces during its journey down the uterine canal. This can lead to mechanical difficulties.

The new-born skull is not a solid structure. It is made up of more than 20 bones, which can be pushed out of alignment during birth. The joint between head and neck is particularly vulnerable. This may be visible in the odd shape of a baby's head, or it may result in irreversible damage, as in the case of cerebral palsy.

If the OCC is still struggling against the majority of medical opinion that regards its work as akin to faith healing, there are signs of converts, notably among midwives, and even some doctors. Joan Kinder, consultant in child health at Eastbourne General Hospital, has seen patients benefit.

"One child with Down's syndrome has been having treatment since he was five months, and at 14 months is performing developmentally exactly as a child without Down's. A hyperactive five-year-old has made progress after just two sessions. His mother came into my office crying and I feared the worst. But they were tears of joy."

While such stories are heartening for parents, the importance of a regulatory body cannot be over-stressed; though Stuart Korth has so far not heard of any serious damage inflicted by an unqualified "therapist", there has been at least one case of cranial osteopathy applied too forcefully, resulting in dreadful headaches. The British Association of Osteopathy hopes to establish a regulatory body within the next 12 months. Which, one might say, is only using your head.

Osteopathic Centre for Children, 4 Harcourt House, 19a Cavendish Square, London W1M 9AD (0171-495 1231). Recommended cost is pounds 10 a session. If parents cannot afford it, treatment is free.