As OCHK turns two, I talk to founder and clinic director, Stephen Watts, to find out why he was drawn to osteopathy, how you can have a health condition and still be healthy, why you shouldn’t hike in flip flops, and what’s next in his plans to fix the people of Hong Kong.

Stephen, what drew you to become an osteopath?

Although osteopathy might be considered a niche field, I pretty much fell into it (literally!) by chance. When I was 20, I spent a month training in a Muay Thai camp in Koh Samui, where I picked up an injury.

Unfortunately, I can’t claim it was due to a spectacular boxing match, as it happened on my day off from training. I fell while walking round a waterfall in flip flops and sprained my ankle. There was a therapist in the camp who helped me and got me back to training pretty quickly.

This experience set me on the path of discovering manual therapy. When I got back to the UK, I studied to become a Sports and Remedial Massage Therapist at the London School of Sports Massage. It was a great course, and some of the instructors were doctors, physiotherapists and osteopaths.

The way the osteopaths explained how they assess and treat the body really clicked with me. I began to look into osteopathy more. Although I started a Sports Therapy degree, I found the treatments weren’t hands-on enough. I like working with my hands and feeling the changes during the treatment.

As a massage therapist, I had worked in physiotherapy clinics and chiropractic clinics. I considered studying chiropractic, but I knew that it’s possible to make many positive changes with specific techniques to the muscles and fascia, and this isn’t really a feature of the chiropractic approach. I didn’t want to throw away that experience and all those tools I had built up over the years.

Osteopathy was the natural progression for me. In addition to joint adjustments or manipulations, it combines specific work to the soft tissues, including the muscles, tendons and ligaments. It also considers blood flow and, with it, nutrition supply and drainage. This holistic approach is what drew me to become an osteopath.

The World Health Organization describes health as ‘more than the absence of disease’. What does health mean for you?

Absence of disease is just the baseline that health builds on. But there’s an aspect of “health” I’d like to highlight.

Many of our clients have health issues or conditions, many of which are incurable but need managing. Yet after taking care of their lifestyle, diet, sleep, and exercise they are actually healthier than many people without disease.

I speak from personal experience on this – I have an auto-immune issue, yet most people wouldn’t know this. They see me as a fairly fit and healthy individual, and to some extent, it’s because of my disease that I am that way. Because of my condition, I think I’ve actually led a healthier lifestyle, and I want to help others do the same.

Some new clients are upset when they come in after they’ve seen other practitioners or had some kind of medical diagnosis that they feel will permanently affect them. I take things as they are and work with the client to see what aspects of their condition are changeable: what can we work with and where can we improve matters. People often then realise being healthy isn’t so black and white. There’s nearly always something you can do to improve your overall health and wellbeing.

You’ve worked in many places across the world. How do you come to be practising osteopathy in Hong Kong?

I’ve really enjoyed travelling and working around the world. I’ve been lucky to work in Malaysia, Singapore and Dubai before I moved here and really enjoyed those places for different reasons.

But for me Hong Kong has it all – from international food options to great hikes and accessible beaches. A mix of old and new, East and West, it’s all there. And this might sound strange, but I also love a good thunderstorm, and Hong Kong definitely delivers there!

OCHK is celebrating its two-year anniversary soon – what would you say is the secret to its success?

I really love what I do and enjoy continuing to learn and develop. I’ve been lucky enough to find the right people to create a great team that feels the same way. We genuinely care for our clients and work together to figure out what the best course of treatment or care for them is.

You’ve treated many hundreds of patients over the years. Can you tell us about any cases that have stood out for you?

Osteopathy is known for helping people with back pain and neck pain. That’s our bread and butter. But some of the cases that have stood out aren’t directly related to these issues.

I remember one case where a client had had vertigo for over 10 years. It was getting worse, despite taking medication. Unfortunately, he had been mis-diagnosed all that time ago. He had a type of vertigo that we could easily treat with a few specific exercises.

The next time I saw him he had terrible neck pain, and I wondered what had happened. It turned out he’d strained his neck showing off to his family how he could now turn his head without getting dizzy! Since he’d barely moved his neck for the previous 10 years, it was bound to complain!

I’ve also had a few cases relating to men’s health, which we don’t often talk about. Several cases have had the same presentation. The patients have had a urinary tract infection that has been treated with antibiotics – successfully, to the extent they no longer have any detectable infection. But the pain persists.

I look at trigger points related to the area and check the pelvis mechanics, including any abdominal dysfunction which may put more pressure on the bladder or inguinal region. There’s little research to show we can help with these things, so I tell the patients I can’t promise it’ll work. But in these few cases I’ve seen, this treatment has resolved the pain they’ve been having for weeks – or even months.

What would your one top tip be for people looking for a small change they can make to improve their health?

I’ll paraphrase a motto from Jack LaLanne(if you don’t know who he was, have a look at some of his incredible feats he achieved in his life here.

“If man made it, don’t eat it.”

Basically, try to stick to simple whole foods and avoid the junk processed foods as much as possible.

And one more (it’s a common one so I’m not sure who to credit), but:

“Movement is medicine.”

A few minutes of gentle mobility work here and there can feel great. It doesn’t need to be complicated!

When you’re not working, what does your perfect day off look like?

A perfect day off might be finding a new café somewhere and saying hello to a few of the dried food shop cats on the way.

After a little caffeine boost, it’s time to get into nature. That might be exploring a new hike or heading to a beach with some friends. I’ll sometimes take my camping stove with me and make some cheese toasties if I find a good spot, which always goes down well.

Come evening time, I’ll either stay beachside for some food and drink, or head back into town for a couple of glasses of wine. Might not sound that exciting, but I think it’s pretty balanced and full of simple pleasures.

Congratulations on the success of OCHK so far. Any plans for the future?

Thanks very much! I’ve definitely got some ideas for growing OCHK and developing our offerings, but it’s a little too early to share at this stage.

In the meantime, I’m always looking at more ways to improve on what we already do.

For example, we’ve developed a dedicated scoliosis programme using a combination of therapies, which I’m really proud of. This capacity to draw on the team’s wide skill set is, I think, one of the great strengths of OCHK. And there’s more to come – so watch this space!

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