The Importance of Anatomy to all Healthcare Practitioners

by Caroline Barrow

Originally published in Positive Health issue 96 - Feb 2004

Anatomy from a Baby's Perspective

At what age did you first start to study anatomy? I bet you were about 18 months old. You learned, 'nose, mouth, eyes, arm, leg, toes…' As your studies developed you went further and added knees, elbows, shoulders and 'tummy'… and while you may not have yet learned about different types of joints or the digestive organs themselves, you may have realized that limbs move differently and that food and toilet visits were intimately connected! Naming and understanding what the 'bits' are for is useful to us from a young age; and the depth of our understanding naturally reflects both our level of interest as well as our need for applying it.

Anatomy has developed as a system with complex names, which may put some people off, yet serves to quickly identify exactly what we are talking about. While in general life we may get away with stomach or head to describe aches and pains we are all, no doubt, happier that surgeons know exactly what tissues and structures they may be aiming for and passing through (or bypassing) when they diagnose, or even operate on us. I strongly believe that the more we understand about the body systems we are working on, the better we can support our clients and the more benefits we will reap.

The Subtle and the Tangible

Sometimes in healing and medicine, it seems we are being pulled in two different directions. One is the lure of the tangible physical body from the biochemical and molecular level of cell physiology. On the other hand, for many of us there is an undeniable experience of the energetic and the (not always) subtle shifts in feelings and perceptions that often accompany a
change in 'well-being' and previous 'disease' states. As therapists we work with our intuition and 'follow the listening' (a term used in a visceral manipulation course recently attended!), yet I do believe that we can be even more accurate in our treatments when this approach is melded with a deep understanding of the structures and physiology of the body.

Tips for Studying Anatomy

What Do We Need to Know?

Medics spend 5 years training. They are trained to diagnose and often do so with the back up of current technology – from blood tests or scans to more invasive cameras or biopsies. Despite all this gadgetry, as we all know there are still many things doctors cannot understand, explain or deal with. We are not training to be doctors, nor legally allowed to diagnose. So how much do we need to know?

There is a lot of work going on at the moment to set standards and core curriculum in some of the disciplines (eg homeopathy and acupuncture) and this will spread to others over the next 20 years or so. Massage, aromatherapy or reflexology courses have anatomy and physiology components that vary from 12 to 30 week courses. Other interventions such as Reiki and other types of healing require no anatomical training. While this is not perhaps necessary to practise the discipline, does it become more important if people practice? What if we are practising on people with diseases, or alongside other health professionals? And what about the detail learnt initially but forgotten? Should we recap it? Should we aim to deepen the understanding? It won't surprise you to know that I think we should!

Tips for Integrating Study into Your Practice

How Best to Learn?

So what is the best way to go about learning? Different people learn best in different ways, however there are common strands and it seems to me that a combination of approaches is the most valuable:

The Benefits of Anatomy

I have always believed it is in everybody's interest for alternative practitioners to be in on the secrets about the body that science has discovered and to understand the way the body works. This contributes to our practices in a number of ways:

Understanding the body, in as many ways as possible, leads to a truly holistic approach (we cannot call it holistic if we miss out big chunks). We do not, for example, need to know all the names of every structure, but when we understand some of the intricacies about how we have been put together and how structure serves function we can extend this into our treatments when appropriate. Appreciation of nutrition, lifestyle impacts, physiological processes, conventional approaches to conditions etc. broadens our awareness.

About Caroline Barrow

Caroline Barrow BSc is a Shiatsu and Cranio-sacral practitioner. She is also the founder of the College of Body Science which specialises in running a variety of courses for complementary health practitioners to study anatomy (for real!), physiology, pathology and aspects of biomedical science. The vision is for high quality, on-going teaching, support and exchange to be available and suitable for practitioners at different stages of understanding,
enabling a truly holistic approach to health. She can be contacted on Tel: 0845 108 1088;