Craniosacral therapy (CST) was developed about 30 years ago by John Upledger, DO. Dr. Upledger originally studied the practice of cranial osteopathy, which was devised by William Sutherland, DO in the early twentieth century, but adapted it based on his own research and personal observation during his career as an osteopathic physician.
Craniosacral therapy is based on several theories. The first of these is that the bones of the skull do not fuse completely in early childhood as is usually believed. Also, in his early career Dr. Upledger observed, while assisting during a surgical procedure, that the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord – the meninges – actually move rhythmically. At first it was thought that this rhythm was due to the heartbeat, but Dr. Upledger discovered that the rhythm of the meninges is a different pattern from that of the heartbeat.
Craniosacral therapists are taught to detect and evaluate the movement of the meninges by just holding the head and the base of the spine – the sacrum – very still and focusing on what they feel with their fingers and hand. After the evaluation, it is possible to very slowly and gently “adjust” the bones of the skull, so that the cerebrospinal fluid – the fluid lining the brain and spinal cord – can flow more naturally.
Craniosacral therapy is used for a wide range of symptoms, including neck and low back pain, chronic fatigue, temporomandibular joint syndrome, fibromyalgia and even emotional issues like depression and anxiety. It is especially good for chronic conditions that may have a neurological component, like coordination problems, hyperactivity and learning disorders. It has even been used to treat autism; Dr. Upledger has found that the meninges of most autistic children are unusually tight and that it is possible to loosen them during a CST treatment.
Craniosacral therapy is performed with the client lying on a treatment table while the therapist holds the head and/or the sacrum. The therapist’s hands then move slightly as they do the needed adjusting. It may not feel like much is happening during the treatment; the therapist needs to maintain their concentration, so they don’t talk much and the client, because they are not moving much themselves, may fall asleep. The effects are subtle and it can take a lot of sensitivity to notice them at first.
And what are the effects? To begin with, the client may notice that they are calmer and can concentrate more easily. Their posture or coordination may improve and they may have less pain; perhaps that nagging headache they’ve had is now gone. Or maybe they feel more optimistic about life in general. The issues in their life that have been a source of anxiety no longer seem so challenging – or hard to get over. (Because it has such a wide range of benefits, CST can be used in conjunction with other therapies, including emotional treatment.)
Craniosacral therapy can help people of all ages, from infants to elders. About the only time it is definitely not recommended is when there is a high-risk condition located in or affecting the brain or spinal cord, like an aneurysm or intracranial hemorrhage. The craniosacral therapist will obtain a medical history and may consult with a physician or other practitioner before doing a treatment.
Craniosacral therapy can be practiced by massage therapists, but it is not massage. It can be done by osteopathic physicians, but it’s not an osteopathic adjustment. It takes special training to do this sort of work. But many people – practitioners and clients alike – swear by it and would never try anything else.