A lot of people wonder how long it takes to become an osteopath and what it takes to be an osteopath? This article is going to describe exactly what the course is like.

You turn up on your first day not quite knowing what to expect. Some students know exactly what an osteopath is, either they have siblings who are osteopaths, maybe a parent, or perhaps they have had treatment from an osteopath themselves. They usually are good at science, enjoy working with people, and may come from a biomedical background already. Some are into sports, psychology, nutrition…or all of the above. Students who study osteopathy usually share one thing in common: a genuine and innate desire to help people. A distinct satisfaction when they help someone feel better. Empathy can be taught, fortunately, as not all students possess it naturally. By the end of the course, most will be able to empathise to a particularly high level, which means to imagine what it is like to be another person, to feel what they feel.

First year

The first year of an osteopathy degree is challenging in a different way to the subsequent years. Partly because many think osteopathy is “like massage”. This is completely inaccurate, of course, as Osteopathy usually uses massage for about a third to a quarter of the treatment time. And the type of massage usually doesn’t have techniques commonly used by beauty masseuses such as effleurage. It is usually deeper, uses levers (which means moving a part of the body to assist in tissue release) and can feel extremely painful.

The first term is psychologically challenging because the student becomes aware of the depth of the course, and the work required. That combined with being in a new city, with new people, can make the university ecperience very daunting at the beginning.

Osteopathy is a science through and through. But it is also an art, which requires learning a new psychomotor skill, like driving. You are having to think and talk about complex anatomy in a language which you are learning which sounds like Japanese, to an attractive tutor while performing a movement on a human you have only just met who is in their underwear. And you’re 19, probably hungover and sweating profusely.

An osteopathy student in their first year is learning 12 theoretical modules, going to 2 hour practical lectures 3 times a week with an expectation to be practicing daily. Hundreds of muscles and nerves to learn, along with their purpose. As mentioned, soft tissue technique (massage) is very different from your Swedish massage in the local parlour. Osteopaths need to know exactly how a technique works on a neurological level. They need to know theory, in terms of neurology and histology. It takes not just memory, but understanding to learn these things. An interest and passion helps also. You need to live, and breathe the knowledge if you want to do particularly well. And if like many intelligent people, you do want to do well, you will be stressed, as a B is never good enough and getting As takes hard work and ultimately, a personal sacrifice of some sort. For many that meant not watching TV, not going to family events and many all nighters. Falling in love, which happens to many students, can be more of a hindrence then a help.

Second year

Second year is where the practical elements of the course become more intense. Clinical practice begins, as well as dissection classes twice a week. Dissection classes involves a tutor chiselling cadavers (the bodies of the deceased) layer by layer to reveal the anatomy beneath the skin and within organs. Internal tissues of the heart, liver, scrotums and much more were examined, as well arteries, nerves, veins and muscles. The smell of formaldehyde (the preservative used to keep the bodies from decaying) is not everyone’s idea of a nice morning after a few in the local Walkabout and many peers feel compelled to sneakily take a picture of a gentleman’s head conserved in a jar. Clinical diagnosis lectures required equipment such as a sphygmomanometer, tuning forks, reflex hammers and ophthalmology sets. Our neurological assessments required us to remember to bring tooth pics and cotton wool, to test the dorsal column and spinothalamic tracts, so the old age, “I’ve forgotten my pen” became “I’ve forgotten my otoscope”.

Public speaking became a challenge for many, especially those who were new to it. It is something that doesn’t get taught in most primary and secondary schools to a large degree. Filing is also a skill which is needed to keep an organised place for all modules. Colour coded files were always a trait of the public school elites. Competitiveness isn’t always a bad quality, in fact perhaps it could do women some good to compete for accomplishments, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, instead of for the attention of men.

Written work is also a part of the course which often involves a lot of research, referencing, sleepless nights, dedication and editing. Trawling through research, putting facts into your own words, linking results and conclusions and setting work out well are all skills which constantly progress. Some of the work were small bodies of writing but larger literature reviews on topics such as osteoarthritis, polymyalgia rheumatica and down syndrome were also regularly given- with always an end focus on how osteopathy can help such diseases.

Year 3

Year 3 is where students learn to treat the general public in a way which is more solitary and independent. With tutors coming into the treatments and advising them on how to improve their examinations, treatments and various other aspects of their flourishing skills. Tutors also teach psychological techniques on managing personal life matters away from the clinic, and keep personal life issues at home. Valuable lessons are taught (often indirectly) about working as a team, getting on with people, and managing your work and home life balance.

Additional lectures on meditation, taping, cranial osteopathy and yoga are included in the course. And although we did not become experts in these fields, it became a great basis for future courses and qualifications. Paediatrics is taught as a module, but without the practice on little ones regularly, it means that further training is needed to be competent in treating children. Children’s brains and bodies, of course, are undeveloped, which means treatments are completely different, with the need to make things not only a little bit more fun, but a requirement to adapt language and explanations to the child while also explaining everything to their guardian.

The dissertation

The dissertation preparation begins in year 3. A choice of topics is given and students are asked to choose one. It is advised to choose a topic which interests the student, as the writing requires extensive research.Continuous chats with tutors, advice on what to choose then ensues with eventually an approval of a title. The dissertation is probably the most challenging part of the course, it is long, often frustrating and requires a very high level of time management and organisation skills. An actual experiment has to be designed which will reflect management skills and interpersonal relations. Then an analysis of results using quite complex research terminology must be completed, along with a discussion at the end.

Year 4

This was the year that was very much about the dissertation and final clinical competence exam. A mock prepares all students for the final. Differential diagnosis was key in these exams, with over 30 potential differentials for each region of pain in the body, it is important to know orthopaedic tests for each region of the body.

After the dissertation is completed in it’s written form, a presentation has to be given, describing and discussing the results, in a lecture theatre full of students and tutors. This can be a highly stressful time for students. It often helps students to practice the presentation on their peers, as well as watching videos of well known compelling public speakers such as Bill Clinton.

Year 4 usually goes very quickly for people and that’s definitely not because it is more fun. Even the most, and actually usually the most elite of students struggled, probably because they put so much pressure on themselves to get high grades.


You cannot be an osteopath just because you can afford to pay for the course. Many people drop out of the course not just because they realise they were not interested in the topic, but because of the challenging aspect. The course requires dedication, commitment, sacrifice, passion, endurance, patience, positive thinking and excellent coping mechanisms.

It is a thoroughly rewarding course which has moments of complete victory, particularly in the clinic when you help someone who is in so much pain. The bonds you form with tutors and other students also make the course a valuable learning experience. And of course, the job itself is also rewarding. One only has to speak to an osteopath to find out that they believe they have the best job in the world. If you have any further questions on what the course entails, please do not hesitate to contact me.

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