Craniosacral therapy, also known as cranial osteopathy or simply cranial therapy, is an approach to massage therapy in which practitioners manipulate connective tissues and skeleton, particularly the sacrum and skull, using gentle pressure. The theory behind this type of treatment—rhythmic pulsations of the central nervous system can be manipulated for improved health and well-being—has generated some controversy.
Understanding Craniosacral Therapy
William Sutherland, an osteopath active in the early 20th century, first suggested in a 1929 paper that the skull was not, in fact, a solid, fixed object and that adult cranial bones actually moved. After examining cranial sutures and the slight movements of cranial bones, he posited that these structures moved with the “tides” of the nervous system. Forty years later, osteopathy researchers at Michigan State University used X-rays to prove Sutherland’s theory correct.
Cranial osteopaths believe traumas such as birth, childhood incidents, automobile accidents, and emotional catastrophes distort the natural rhythms of the nervous system. Craniosacral therapists can manipulate, or palpate these subtle rhythms as they ebb and flow through cerebrospinal fluids and related tissues. (Massage therapists use the word “palpate,” which comes from the Latin root “palpare,” or touch, to describe the process of locating specific muscles and determining their health.)
How Does Craniosacral Therapy Work?
Craniosacral therapists have identified three types of pulsations, or tides, in the cerebrospinal fluid:
- Cranial rhythmic impulse: Practitioners can discern this surface-level pulse every five to eight seconds.
- Mid-tide: This rhythm carries organizing impulses into the body about twice a minute.
- Long tide: This deep pulse occurs about once every two minutes and is said to be expressed from the center of a person’s being.
These impulses are believed to be essential for a healthy body and mind, as they help cells express primary respiration, keeping processes running in good order throughout the body. In place from birth, they can be considered the “traffic signals” of the nervous system.
When these signals are disrupted, whether by physical trauma, emotional disturbances, or toxicities in the environment, certain areas of a person’s nervous system may become blocked. Some individuals may, for example, “block” overwhelming experiences by keeping them in stasis inside the nervous system. When people are unable to process and release this energy effectively, they may find it difficult to heal and move forward in life. Proponents of this approach believe that craniosacral therapy can benefit individuals who experience such blockage, making it less likely one’s body/mind will remain stuck, so to speak, and continue replaying difficult experiences.
What to Expect from a Craniosacral Therapy Session
Before treatment, practitioners will typically inquire about a person’s medical history, as far back as the birth experience. Individuals seeking therapy are encouraged to describe any symptoms currently experienced as well as their lifestyle choices.
Sessions might last from thirty minutes up to an hour long. People receiving massage therapy, who remain fully clothed during the treatment, lie back on a padded table as the craniosacral practitioner uses gentle touch to manipulate joints in the spine and connected structures, from the top of the individual’s head down to their tailbone.
Craniosacral therapists may move the arms and legs around and examine the skull, ribs, and spine to identify tight and restricted areas. They will “listen with their hands” to the body’s internal rhythms—a tenet of the approach is that the body will tell them what it needs and how a person should be treated for any concerns.
Using this non-invasive style of bodywork, therapists will gently encourage the mind and the body both to return to a state of balance and release. People who have received this treatment often report feeling a sense of calm, as well as a gentle, pleasant tingling sensation. Recipients of this therapy are encouraged to share their experiences with the practitioner, especially if they feel an overwhelming emotional release. Trained and experienced massage therapists will understand a person’s responses to treatment and will know how to help them manage their emotions for a more positive and liberating experience.
Benefits of Craniosacral Therapy
A holistic approach that takes into account areas of interconnection between the mind, body, and spirit, cranial therapy is considered an effective treatment approach for any number of concerns. Beyond this, it is thought to have an overall positive impact on a person’s sense of well-being.
In particular, cranial osteopathy may provide relief for the following specific issues and/or symptoms:
- Breastfeeding complications
- Constipation and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- Meniere’s disease, vertigo, and other ear issues
- Migraine headaches
- Sinus congestion and infections
- Stress reduction and tension release
Gentle craniosacral therapy is considered suitable for clients of all ages, from babies to the elderly. Babies might especially benefit from craniosacral therapy in the case of a difficult birth. Sometimes, birth trauma causes misalignment of developing cranial bones, and an experienced practitioner can often rectify this. Children who have experienced head and/or birth trauma and who also show signs of ADHD may also obtain great benefit from craniosacral therapy.
This approach to massage therapy has not been shown to treat symptoms of cancer specifically, but the American Cancer Society has found patients diagnosed with cancer often feel more relaxed when they receive cranial therapy in addition to other cancer treatments.
Craniosacral Therapy Precautions
People who have had recent head injuries are generally advised to consult their physician before pursuing this type of massage therapy. Though this treatment does help people recover from head trauma, some have found it to exacerbate their symptoms. A medical doctor can help a person determine when cranial therapy may be right for them.
People with aneurysms, certain kinds of tumors, blood clots, and severe arthritis should also avoid this treatment. Those with hematomas, injuries, or open wounds may also wish to ask the practitioner to avoid those areas.
As with any type of massage or complementary approach, it is generally considered best practice to seek a doctor’s advice before pursuing treatment.
- Hammer, W. (2005). Functional soft tissue examination and treatment by manual methods: new perspectives (2nd. Ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett
- Kern, M. (n.d.). Introduction to biodynamic craniosacral therapy. Retrieved from https://www.craniosacraltherapy.org/Whatis.htm
- Mayo Clinic Staff (n.d.). Meniere’s disease: definition. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/menieres-disease/basics/definition/con-20028251
- Muscolino, J. (2010). Effective palpation. https://www.amtamassage.org/articles/3/MTJ/detail/2263
- Weil, A. (n.d.). Wellness Therapies: Cranial Osteopathy. Retrieved from http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART03223/Cranial-Osteopathy-Craniosacral-Therapy.html