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  • Writer's pictureAlexandre Calamaro

The Autonomic Nervous System and Osteopathy

The Nervous System (NS) is the most complex system found in the human body. It innervates all other systems such as the digestive system, the endocrine system (hormones), the musculoskeletal system (muscles, joints and bones) and others.

Here is a breakdown of the organisation of the NS: The NS is divided into two main systems: the Central Nervous System (CNS), where the brain and spinal cord are found, and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS), where all the nerves branching off the brain and spinal cord are found. Both systems constantly communicate between each other. NS = CNS + PNS

The PNS has two divisions: the sensory division (afferent), and the motor division (efferent).

The sensory division picks up sensory stimuli. For example, a spider is crawling on someone’s skin: The skin’s sensors in the area pick up the information and send it through the PNS, up to the CNS, finally reaching the brain. Once the information is in the brain, the motor division takes action. It sends a message from the brain to the muscle group where the spider is crawling. The muscle group contracts and moves until the spider is gone.

PNS = Sensory division (afferent) + Motor division (efferent)

The Motor division, itself, is also divided into two areas: the Somatic Nervous System a.k.a the voluntary nervous system, which controls the skeletal muscle movement; and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), a.k.a the involuntary nervous system, which keeps the heart beating, the lungs breathing, and the stomach churning. Motor divison (efferent) = Somatic Nervous System + ANS

Finally, the last division, involving the ANS. The ANS is divided into two systems: The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PaNS). ANS = SNS + PaNS Going back to the example of the spider, the SNS mobilises the body into action and gets it all fired up (fight or flight mode) kicking the spider off, removing it as quickly as possible! Once the spider gone, the PaNS kicks in, calming the body down, saying it wasn’t a deadly arachnoid.

Here is simple breakdown the Nervous System:

The Autonomic Nervous System

As mentioned above, the ANS is responsible for the function of the internal organs, such as regulating the heart and respiration rates, adjusting stomach acid secretions, and changing the body’s temperature.

It is divided into 2 different branches, the SNS and PaNS.

They are not OPPOSITES, but CONTRASTS, meaning they complement each other. Each internal organ is innervated by both branches and will be stimulated differently depending in what situation the body is in.

The Sympathetic Nervous System is the hardware of the fight or flight response and is found in the thoracolumbar regions of the spine (the mid and lower back). The SNS constantly responses to stress, activating a "survival mode” in the body, where the heart and respiration rates increase, the body starts to sweat, and the muscles are activated, ready for any kind of action. Nowadays, with constant noises such as sirens, construction sites, people shouting; strong odors like bins, hard pollution; or staying vigilant when crossing roads or driving, a stress response is constantly activated, even when it’s not in immediate mortal danger. Stressful scenarios such as breaking ones mobile phone, missing a flight, or trying to send an essay whilst having internet issues on deadline day are not fatal but terrible circumstances to be in.

The SNS cannot differentiate between the latter scenarios because physiological responses to non-immediate stresses are largely the same as when the body is fighting for survival.

Thankfully, it’s contrast is here to balance it out.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the rest and digest response. It is found in the carniosacral regions of the spine (base of the skull and sacrum). When a stressful non-fatal situation has been averted, the PaNS calms the SNS down by slowing down the heart and respiration rates, dropping the body's temperate and calming the musculoskeletal system.

One of the most important structures found in the PaNS is the Vagus Nerve (CR X), the tenth cranial nerve and longest nerve in the body. It regulates the heart and digestive tracts, controls the immune system response, influences mood, speech and taste. In order to reduce stress and anxiety, humans have stress relievers, and one of the most common ones is eating. It triggers the PaNS into the “rest and digest” state and allows the individual to calm down. However, there are different ways, techniques and therapies to influence the ANS overall, and reach a state of Homeostasis. One of the latter is Osteopathy.

The impact of Osteopathy on the ANS

As mentioned in our previous article on swimming, there are four Principles of Osteopathy: The Body is a Unit Structure Governs Function The Body is it own “Medicine Chest”

The Rule of the Artery is supreme

The osteopath cannot have a direct and isolated impact on the ANS as they have a holistic approach and would contradict the four principles mentioned above when treating. Additionally, The ANS is part of the most complex system in the body and that all structures and systems are connected and influenced by one another.

However, during treatment, the osteopath can use a variety of techniques to influence and restore equilibrium between the two systems. Some of these methods include: Mobilisations and HVTs Soft tissue techniques Using the Cranial, Visceral and Structural approches in Osteopathy

The osteopath can also give some advice on lifestyle, outside of treatment, in order to reduce anxiety and being overwhelmed by stressful situations.

Some of these methods include:

  • Box Breathing, a breathing technique used by special forces such as the Navy SEALSand the British SAS, where the person can calm down in a matter of seconds. Simply inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat this process 2-4 times.

  • Eating lifestyle: Food is a well known stress reliever as it triggers the “rest and digest” phase in the body. Analysing this stress reliever (what kind of food does the person eat when stressed) and focusing on modifying or even changing it is key.

  • Exercise: another form of stress relief. Moving and using the whole body, sweating and removing toxins, but also clearing the mind to focus on an objective, are some of many benefits that exercise allows us to do. That concludes this paper. If you have any questions about the ANS or other branches of the nervous system, or even other systems in the human body; or you simply wish to come and seek osteopathic treatment, please, do not hesitate to book an appointment online with myself.

Do not forget: Stress and Pain are very unpleasant feelings and sensations, but they are part of our Journey in Life, so learn from them. Listen and trust your body, but most importantly: do take care of yourself!

See you then,

Alexandre Calamaro

Registered Osteopath 10928

Osteopath Kentish Town, London


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