Osteopathy only helps if you’re suffering aches and pains, according to a review of the evidence.
Experts say the controversial treatment can be even better than seeing a physio for patients with musculoskeletal disorders.
But there is no proof it has any benefits for children or against migraines or irritable bowel syndrome, researchers claim.
Osteopathy — first developed in the 1800s — has been regarded as dubious at best by critics.
The practice entails the soft manipulation of the body’s tissues and bones, involving moving, stretching and massaging a person’s muscles and joints.
The review, conducted by Italian osteopaths, was based on dozens of trials involving around 3,750 volunteers.
Independent experts told MailOnline most of the primary studies in the review have limited reliability because of ‘serious methodological problems’.
Italian osteopaths and medics claim there is ‘promising evidence’ osteopathy can help relieve conditions including back, neck, and chronic non-cancer pain
Professor Edzard Ernst, a world-renowned expert on alternative medicine, formerly at the University of Exeter, said the findings ‘fly in the face of science and common sense’.
He said they should be taken with ‘a sizable pinch of salt’.
Osteopathy is considered an ‘allied health profession’ in the UK and can patients can be referred for the practice by NHS GPs in some areas of England.
There are 5,000 registered osteopaths across Britain. Private sessions can cost £40, approximately.
The review, published in the BMJ Open, analysed nine previous review papers from osteopaths or medics trained in osteopathy.
It was led by Donatella Bagagiolo, of the Higher School of Italian Osteopathy in Turin.
What is osteopathy and does it actually work?
Osteopathy is concerned with restoring and maintaining balance in the body’s neuro-musculoskeletal systems.
Practitioners say misuse, injury and stress can all upset the fine balance between the body’s different systems — muscles, joints, ligaments and nerves.
Osteopath’s aim to restore and preserve the balance, giving relief from unnecessary aches and discomforts.
Some even claim it can help other unrelated issues, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), asthma and impotence, but there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.
Patients can be referred to osteopaths by GPs on the NHS, depending on what area they live in.
An NHS spokesperson said: ‘There’s some evidence to suggest that osteopathy may be effective for some types of neck, shoulder or lower-limb pain, some types of headache, and recovery after hip or knee operations.
‘There’s only limited or no scientific evidence that it’s an effective treatment for conditions unrelated to the bones and muscles (musculoskeletal system), including asthma, period pain and digestive disorders.’
Papers covered osteopathy’s effectiveness in treating lower back, neck and chronic non-cancer pain.
They also evaluated its effects on paediatric conditions — including cerebral palsy and scoliosis — migraines, tension headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.
They found osteopathy is more effective than other approaches in reducing lower back, neck and chronic non-cancer pain. Ms Bagagiolo described the results as ‘promising’.
Other approaches included no treatment at all, physiotherapy and other alternative medicines.
But there was ‘inconclusive evidence’ that osteopathy helped with any of the other conditions, the team claimed.
Ms Bagagiolo said the studies — based on small sample sizes — produced contradictory findings.
The researchers wrote: ‘This overview suggests that osteopathy could be effective in the management of musculoskeletal disorders, specifically with regard to… low back pain in pregnant women or those who have just had a baby.
‘In contrast, inconclusive evidence was derived from analysing osteopathy efficacy on paediatric conditions, primary headache, and IBS.
‘Nevertheless, based on the low number of studies, some of which are of moderate quality, our overview highlights the need to perform further well-conducted systematic reviews as well as clinical trials… to confirm and extend the possible use of osteopathy in some conditions as well as its safety.’
Experts criticised the study, however.
Professor Ernst told MailOnline: ‘Osteopathy is based on obsolete assumptions that fly in the face of science and common sense.
‘Most of the primary studies of osteopathy suffer serious methodological problems that limit their reliability.
‘Therefore, the evidence produced by an overview of systematic reviews ought to be taken with a sizable pinch of salt.
‘Even with those conditions for which osteopathy seems to be backed by encouraging evidence, we must be clear that it is never the best therapy available to date.’
Osteopathy involves using stretching, massage and different movements to increase joint mobility, relieve muscles tension and reduce pain.
Practitioners aim to increase blood supply and help the body to heal in certain areas.
Some practitioners also claim osteopathy can help patients with IBS, migraines and even excessive crying in babies. Tummy rubbing infants and cranial osteopathy — massaging the head — are commonplace at clinics claiming to help the issues.