Mountain biking, go-getting, single thirty-year-old trainee teacher and actor, loving the freedom of an energetic single life - Julie-ann prior to 1997. Then, like many readers, I suffered an unknown but intense viral infection that tipped me into M.E. The main life-sucking symptoms were chronic fatigue, recurrent infections, poor sleep, bad dreams, headaches, sore throats, increased food and chemical sensitivities and post-activity exhaustion. At their worst these symptoms made work or play-related activity a massive chore. I felt like I was dragging myself from one thing to another. Sometimes even speech was difficult. All I wanted to do was to go to bed. I would do so and lie, still, heavy as a stone.
Today, however, I mostly live in the light at the end of this seemingly endless, tiredness tunnel. I work, play, lecture, study and jump up and down at my beloved happy-clappy church once a week. I am not the dynamic sprite of my pre-M.E. years but enough energy has returned for me to pay the bills and pursue the things I love.
Several factors have helped. Nutritionally I eat well and, apart from a penchant for puddings, mostly avoid my food sensitivities. I take copious amounts of vitamin C and other health supporting nutrients. I go to bed when I am tired and wake with the light. I commute by bicycle to keep a modicum of fitness and stretch often. But apart from the undoubted support of my faith, one of the most effective interventions I have found is that of cranial osteopathy.
I stumbled across this incredibly gentle but life-renewing therapy when a friend decided to train. Being intrigued as to how cranial osteopathy might benefit an M.E. sufferer, he offered free treatments in exchange for feedback. He began by treating simple musculoskeletal ills such as my persistent upper back tension and chronic lower back ache. His thinking was that such ills would be increasing the burden on an already weakened and overloaded system. However, despite several attempts, such ills, although diminishing, remained. His tutor suggested that my body might be too tired to respond, so my friend turned his attention to the fatigue. Using seemingly imperceptible adjustments, he coaxed a return of enough vitality for my body to respond to the former treatment. Subsequently, the upper back tension eased and the lower back ache, which had been present since my teenage years, disappeared, never to return. I felt lighter and more energetic. My friend continued, applying his cranial osteopathic approach to my allergies and low immunity. His idea, again, was to ease the burden on a fatigued system and help my body self-recover. Slowly, week by week, I felt my vitality build. It was as if my pre-M.E. self was slowly returning. Eventually, I felt strong enough to return to work. Teaching, I knew, would be too exhausting and risk a resurgence of the M.E., so I decided to follow in my friend’s footsteps and train as a cranial osteopath. Perhaps, I thought, I might be able to help others as my friend had helped me.
Research-based evidence for the effectiveness of osteopathy and other complementary therapies in the treatment of M.E. is compelling but limited (Perrin, 2007; Cao et al, 2011). As such, master’s degree and postgraduate in hand, I hope to shed light on the workings of this gentle but remarkably effective treatment modality. Other useful resources include The Fund for Osteopathic Research into Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and the Sutherland Society (UK organisation for cranial osteopathy).
Cranial osteopathy appears to work in several ways. Firstly, it appears to work via the release or gentle manipulation of the primary respiration. Cranial osteopaths believe there is continuous, subtle shape change in each body cell. Each is thought to get shorter and fatter then longer and thinner. Such motion is assumed to originate in the embryo. Because this shape change is happening in each cell, a global, body-wide motion is created akin to the motion produced by breathing. In fact, it is called respiration, the primary respiration. When treating a patient, cranial osteopaths look for areas where this primary respiration is working and areas where it is not. In areas where it is stuck the cranial osteopath will try to gently encourage it. Why? Good motion means good circulation, which in turn means good health. Think of how you feel after slouching on the sofa all day when you’re poorly or just having a pyjama day. You always feel so much better after a walk. Well, it’s the same thing. Motion = circulation = health.
Secondly, cranial osteopaths look at the quality of the body tissues. Patients suffering from M.E. often exhibit very low vitality. It’s almost as if someone has turned the volume down. The primary respiration is faint, pale. In some cases, the patient feels set to mute. Alternatively, the fatigue of M.E. may give the body a leaden feel. Cranial osteopathy appears able to lift these sensations and in so doing, if experienced regularly, seems to help attain an improved state of well-being, which, in turn, appears to augment health.
Thirdly, cranial osteopathy, like many of the physical therapies, may be used to alleviate simple postural or activity related musculoskeletal ills. By releasing such problems, not only is the primary respiration allowed to express more freely, but the general well-being is further increased. We all know that tight muscles or sore joints create physical and psychological fatigue. And we know that when they are released we feel much better. Cranial osteopathy can do this in a gentle, non-invasive way that is ideal for the fatigued M.E. sufferer.
Finally, one of the prime philosophies of osteopathy is that the body is able, given the right environment, to heal itself. This principle is drawn from the notion of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the idea that although the body is constantly being pushed off balance, by stress, fatigue or infection for example, its sole desire is to return to a state of life-sustaining equilibrium. There are lots of bodily processes that are designed to do this. Cranial osteopathy uses this idea and works to bring the body to a still point of balance from which it can, itself, return to health.
Although not a miracle or quick fix, in my experience as both patient and practitioner, cranial osteopathy is an effective management tool for those suffering from M.E. Gentle and non-invasive, if used regularly as part of an individualised health plan, cranial osteopathy appears to promote balance and support well-being.
Julie-ann Gillitt (BSc Hons, M Ost, DPO, PGCE, BOA, GOsC) works at her osteopathic practice in Clapham, London and at The Lisa Gibbs practice in New Malden and Apple Tree Osteopaths, Berkhamsted. She sees patients of all ages, from the new born to the retired, and treats a wide variety of issues. Treatments include cranial and structural osteopathy and holistic, pregnancy and sports massage. She has a special interest in M.E. and children and adults with profound physical or cognitive needs.