Osteopathy flourishes despite medical warnings

Published on 25 February 2013 in Health & Environment
Amira Nasser (author)

Amira Nasser

Osteopath clinics operate outside state regulations, drawing criticism from formally trained medical experts.

Osteopath clinics operate outside state regulations, drawing criticism from formally trained medical experts.

A year ago, Amel Al-Zaitri seriously injured her right shoulder after tripping and falling. She was hospitalized with a separated shoulder and doctors recommended an operation for the injury.  But Al-Zaitri, skeptical of going under the knife, opted for a natural route and instead went to see her closest osteopathy clinic.

“Why should I undergo a surgery where the outcome is not guaranteed when I have another less risky choice: osteopathy,” said the 35-year old.

Osteopathy is a homeopathic approach to medicine that brands itself by diagnosing and treating muscles, tendons and joints to cure aches and pains.  It is non-chemical and uses remedies like oils and natural foods such as eggs in its treatment.   

“Now, I can move my hand and shoulder easily because of osteopathy. I had  received treatment in hospital for long time but without success,” Al-Zaitri said.

This unlicensed natural treatment  has traditionally operated inside people's homes, but formal clinics are found throughout Sana'a. Despite its popularity among the general public, the practice remains controversial because practitioners are not licensed and are not required to have medical training.

The clinics are not subject to the Ministry of Health's regulations, but that hasn't stopped people like Fathi Al-Sharmani from using them.  

After the young man was injured when a gas cylinder hit his shoulder, he went directly to an osteopath.

“I believe hospitals absorb money from people’s pockets and exploit them by unnecessary operations. Moreover, these operations require putting gypsum, iron and nails in the body,” he said.

Osteopaths attract many patients because of the relatively cheap cost of treatment.  On average, they charge YR 500-1500, about $2-6, per session.

“Poverty and the high cost of treatment in hospitals, as well as lack of awareness are what drive people to treat themselves through non-scientific methods,” said Dr. Abdulla Al-Asta, a brain, bones and spine specialist.

Osteopaths also draw in clientele by promising quick and a less painful recovery to standard medicine.

Hajja Amna, a female osteopath in Sana’a, has been receiving patients in a small room in her house for 20 years.

“I treat sprained ankles and nerve spasms in the back and neck with simple and natural tools like special oil,” she said.

“The patient may feel pain during the session but the pain doesn't last,” she said.

In addition to using natural materials for their traditional treatment, osteopaths also recommend their patients eat natural food.

“I advise my patient to eat eggs, cactus and dairy to ease their pain,” Amna said.  

Although the clinics brand themselves as a natural alternative, some  are embracing modern technology and   intertwining it with their practices.  

Some clinics have X-Ray machines to help osteopaths identify injuries and whether their form of treatment is suitable.   

“If I don’t know the place of injury, I will use an X-Ray room. I send fracture cases to hospitals,” said Akram Mohammed Suliman, who inherited his practice from his father.  

Due to gender norms in Yemen, where men's interactions with unrelated females are usually limited, the majority of osteopaths are usually women.  

“Now, I’m teaching my 7-year-old daughter the profession to help me treat female patients,” said Suliman.

Because osteopaths are unregulated, no statistics are available regarding the exact number of people practicing.  However, it is large enough to draw criticism from medically certified professionals.   

They say it should not be used as a source of medical treatment and that it can have harmful side effects.

“If patients go to hospitals instead of osteopaths, the chance of treatment success will be higher and more guaranteed,” said Dr. Abdullah Al-Asta. “People who practice this profession should be specialist in orthopedics because mistakes may lead to disabilities.”

The Ministry of Health refuses to recognize osteopath clinics as legitimate, although they say they carry out inspection campaigns occasionally.

“Osteopathy clinics and other clinics that provide treatment through the Quran, herbs and honey are not licensed,” said Dr. Yahya Al-Ghasali, head of special medical facilities in the Ministry of Health.

Al-Ghasali said although they operate as a "watch dog" institution, they have no power to shut anyone down.  He said they make recommendations, but it is up to the ministry to take legal action, which rarely happens.  

However, osteopath clinics still have patients flowing in, despite medical warnings.   

“Doctors’ statements about the danger of osteopathy aren’t realistic. This treatment was tested before people know modern medicine,” Al-Zaitri said.