I Tried Osteopathy For Headaches & Jaw Tension — Here's What Happened

Image by Trinette Reed / Stocksy

Earlier this year, I suffered from a medley of uncomfortable physical symptoms that drove me to the emergency room not once, not twice, but thrice: bloody stools, heart palpitations, chest pain, severe vertigo, joint and musculoskeletal pain, and seeing strange lights or "floaters." Before you worry, know I have a great team of half a dozen medical doctors on my side, working with me on traditional Western testing; an excellent naturopath who is weighing in on test results from an integrative standpoint; as well as a handful of healers who have played an important part in this journey.

The gut symptoms presented first, leading to a cascade of others that took turns presenting over the following weeks. Weeks grew into months, and I wondered whether I'd ever feel like myself again. I wasn't practicing yoga, going out with friends, taking the subway, or doing much of anything, really. I was stuck in a body that didn't feel like mine.

What is osteopathy?

Now, six months out, I'm still experiencing GI and digestive issues, but almost all other symptoms have subsided. It may have been the lifestyle changes: I went from working full time to freelance; changed my diet significantly to (mostly) eliminate gluten, dairy, caffeine, booze, and sugar; paused all intense exercise; and finally committed to daily meditation. Even with all those adjustments, I'd experience new symptoms every now and then, adding to the mystery illness. The frustrating part is that my tests came back normal, despite how I was feeling. While some conjectured, no one professional was able to figure out the root cause of these symptoms.

And some of them continued to worsen. More than a month ago, the dizzy spells I was getting became increasingly frequent until I was experiencing them multiple times a week and eventually more than once a day. I was also starting to get painful headaches and intensifying jaw tension. One of my doctors suggested I try osteopathy—a type of bodywork that utilizes manual adjustments to manipulate the fascia, muscles, connective tissue, and bones to address systemic health issues. In a last-ditch effort, I booked an appointment with Stasia Blyskal, D.O., with low expectations, since nothing had worked yet, and an open mind.

Osteopathy: What an appointment is like.

During the first appointment, she did a thorough 90-minute intake. We took about half the time to discuss my medical history, old injuries, recent labs, and how my body had been feeling throughout the symptoms, the testing, and the rather drastic change in my movement habits. Like a traditional medical doctor, she took my blood pressure, listened to my heart and lungs, and tested my reflexes. Then she asked me to stand, assessed my body from the front and the back, and made some observations about where I was imbalanced. From there, I lay down faceup on a massage table, and she used super-subtle palpation techniques to access ligaments—where bone meets bone—tendons, connective tissue, and eventually working with the bones themselves.

She slid her hands underneath my mid-back area and moved her fingers independently of one another along one side of my spine as if she were playing the piano or using a typewriter. These movements were interspersed with moments of holding, or holding followed by a gentle pulling. She used similar micromovements around my occiput (back of the skull) and neck and was manipulating the top of my jaw (near where your ears meet your head). So far the four sessions I've had have each been different, depending how the session before settles into my body and whether I'm feeling any specific pains. Most recently, she worked on my pelvic floor by manipulating connective tissue around my sitz bones from the outside.

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Osteopathy and why a subtle body treatment plan worked for me.

After four sessions, I am ecstatic to report that my dizzy spells, headaches, and floaters have almost completely disappeared. As someone who has historically been interested in firm, rough, and intense massage, Rolfing, and even extreme forms of exercise, watching subtle techniques like Dr. Blyskal's really work was wild.

"To be clear, not all osteopathic work is subtle," said Dr. Blyskal. If she was seeing a patient in their 50s or 60s with joint stiffness, for example, she might apply a firmer touch or invite bigger movement into the joints. "One of the tenets of osteopathic medicine, which is really a principle of human physiology, is that our bodies are self-regulating and self-healing. If you breathe in something noxious, the cells that line your airways will make you cough. If you get a cut, your skin knows how to heal. With alignment issues the same is true, but sometimes a gentle touch is all that is needed. Other times, the body needs a little more help with bigger movements or a firmer touch," she said.

Dr. Blyskal said her work is to position the joints, muscle, and fascia in a way that eases tension in the body. She aims to position ligaments in a more efficient way. "I do tend to work on the subtler end of the spectrum," she said, "but the subtle is very precise."

In other words, when someone comes to Dr. Blyskal with a complaint, she's looking at the entire body to see whether the pain is coming from somewhere else in the body that may be misaligned. "I look at how the vertebrae are stacked on one another; I look at the trunk, hip bones, and really get a full body picture to understand the client's alignment," she said.

Osteopathy isn't just for structural issues—it can help other systems affected by structure, like asthma and in my case, dizzy spells. The most common things she treats are low back pain, neck pain, other joint pains, vertigo, and jaw pain (TMD).

While my gastrointestinal symptoms still haven't dissipated quite as quickly, experiencing some relief from feeling dizzy has had ripple effects through my life. I've been able to return to yoga and Pilates, have increased energy, and have resumed some of the activities that, prior to treatment, would incite vertigo like being on the subway and walking the crowded streets of New York City. I'm sharing this all because it took more than six months for me to try this, and I hope that osteopathy, which still sits squarely in the esoteric realm, can help you or someone you know. This gentle approach is still mysterious, but it's good—I feel it in my bones. 

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