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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

Hands-On Healing with a Dose of Happy

Apr 30, 2014 04:48AM

“Is that your head?” the patient asks the doctor behind her. Osteopathic physician Stella Emsellem responds with a cheerful, muffled yes. Set on finding the source of her patient’s migraine, Emsellem has pressed her head into the woman’s back and placed her hands diagonally on the shoulder and hip. Using her head as a fulcrum, she starts rocking the patient gently back and forth.

Four years of medical school and a yearlong residency taught Emsellem to use her head and hands this way. Characterized by manual diagnosis and treatment, osteopathic medicine treats the body as a unit of interrelated structure and function that possesses the inherent ability to heal itself. Emsellem applies the intelligence in her hands, inherited in a blend of art and science from her jeweler father and neurologist-turned-sleep-doctor mother, to her patients at Hands on Osteopathic Healthcare in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She described her work during this recent interview.

How do you see osteopathys role in healing?

When we respect that the body has the capacity to heal itself, we can evaluate it from a knowledgeable stance, and just give it a nudge in the right direction. Most of my patients are generally healthy and active and have taken numerous falls and bumps along the way and been fine. They come to see me when they have accumulated too many, or encountered an external traumatic force, such that they can’t bounce back.

How do you do it?

My training lineage goes all the way back to the founders of osteopathy. The way we practice is very direct. I can feel where tensions consolidate and change. I was taught to treat for balance and balanced tension, in the whole body, in all the tissues of the body. Learning to feel different layers of tissue is a skill set. Orthopedic surgeons place their hands on a knee and go straight to analyzing the ligaments, joint and meniscus. I place my hands there and stop along the way, so that I first feel the skin, fatty tissue, myofascial tissue, muscle, tendons and then the ligaments, joint space/fluids and bones. It's all just a matter of training. Bones are mosaics of fluid in different densities. I treat the body and the head in the same way. I directly engage it, motion test in all directions, find a restriction and then go into that restriction, to create as much balance in the tensions around that area as I can, until it releases and resets to a new balance point.

Why does someone seek osteopathic treatment?

Most people come to see me for physical pain, musculoskeletal pain—joint pain, back pain, neck pain, stiffness or headaches—but some come because they’re having functional restrictions, there’s something they used to be able to do that they can’t do as well.

What other perspectives do you bring to your work?

I’m a big fan of happiness, which I find in the self-exploration of movement. The more different forms of movement and outdoor sports I pick up, the more I understand the way the body is functioning on a physical and anatomical basis. My yoga practice helps me understand the way breath influences the body and how opposing forces can create balance. I was raised cultural Jewish in a Type A household but have become more spiritual, connected to movement and being in the mountains, feeling something greater and bigger, a sense of unity. I find that place too when I’m treating patients, because it’s such an honor to have their trust.

For more information, call 240-743-4287 or visit


Grace Ogden is the founder of Grace Productions, which offers transformational consulting and Living Sacred events. For more information, visit


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