Somatic Dysfunction

Somatic dysfunction is a term used in osteopathic medicine to describe impaired or altered function of the body’s somatic (structural) components, which include the musculoskeletal, nervous, and lymphatic systems. This dysfunction can affect muscles, joints, bones, and connective tissues, leading to pain, discomfort, and decreased mobility. The concept is integral to osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT), where the goal is to restore normal function through various hands-on techniques. Somatic dysfunction is a specific, reversible impairment of the body framework system.

Rooted in osteopathic principles, somatic dysfunction often presents as tissue texture changes, asymmetry, restriction in motion or tenderness (T.A.R.T.). It’s closely associated with pain syndromes and decreased mobility—its diagnosis and treatment serving as the cornerstone of osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT). The latter employs manual techniques to address these dysfunctions.

Key Characteristics of Somatic Dysfunction

  1. TART Criteria:
    • Somatic dysfunction is identified using the TART criteria, which stands for:
      • T: Tissue texture changes
      • A: Asymmetry
      • R: Restriction of motion
      • T: Tenderness
  2. Acute vs. Chronic:
    • Acute Somatic Dysfunction: Often associated with recent injury or trauma, characterized by warmth, swelling, and severe pain.
    • Chronic Somatic Dysfunction: Long-standing issues that may present as cool, firm, or ropy tissues, with less intense but persistent discomfort.

Causes of Somatic Dysfunction

  1. Trauma:
    • Physical injuries such as falls, accidents, or sports injuries can lead to somatic dysfunction.
  2. Repetitive Strain:
    • Repetitive motions or prolonged postures can cause strain and lead to dysfunction.
  3. Poor Posture:
    • Incorrect posture over time can cause misalignments and muscle imbalances.
  4. Emotional Stress:
    • Stress and emotional factors can manifest physically, contributing to somatic dysfunction.
  5. Medical Conditions:
    • Conditions such as arthritis, scoliosis, or fibromyalgia can contribute to or exacerbate somatic dysfunction.


  1. Physical Examination:
    • Osteopathic physicians use their hands to palpate and assess the body’s tissues, looking for signs of TART criteria.
  2. Medical History:
    • A thorough medical history helps identify underlying causes and contributing factors.
  3. Range of Motion Testing:
    • Assessing the range of motion in joints helps determine areas of restriction.
  4. Imaging Studies:
    • In some cases, imaging studies like X-rays, MRI, or CT scans may be used to rule out other conditions.


  1. Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment (OMT):
    • A variety of hands-on techniques are used to diagnose, treat, and prevent somatic dysfunction. Techniques include:
      • Soft Tissue Techniques: Gentle stretching and pressure to relax muscles and improve circulation.
      • Myofascial Release: Techniques aimed at releasing tension in the fascia (connective tissue).
      • High-Velocity, Low-Amplitude (HVLA) Thrust: Quick, precise movements to restore joint function.
      • Muscle Energy Techniques: Involves the patient actively using their muscles while the physician applies counterforce.
      • Counterstrain: Positioning the body to relieve pain and relax muscles.
  2. Physical Therapy:
    • Exercises and modalities to improve strength, flexibility, and function.
  3. Lifestyle Modifications:
    • Ergonomic adjustments, stress management techniques, and posture correction.
  4. Medications:
    • Pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs, or muscle relaxants may be prescribed to manage symptoms.

Benefits of Treating Somatic Dysfunction

  1. Pain Relief:
    • Reducing or eliminating pain associated with musculoskeletal issues.
  2. Improved Mobility:
    • Restoring normal range of motion and function in affected areas.
  3. Enhanced Circulation:
    • Improving blood flow and lymphatic drainage to support healing.
  4. Overall Well-Being:
    • Addressing somatic dysfunction can lead to better overall health and quality of life.



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