Craniosacral therapy is a holistic, gentle, and noninvasive osteopathic manipulation technique developed by the late Dr. John Upledger, an osteopathic physician. It’s frequently used to treat physical trauma, chronic pain, headaches, and numerous other medical issues and physiological symptoms. Craniosacral therapy isn’t limited to the treatment of physical health issues, however. It has been used effectively in the treatment of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and several other mental health disorders.
Craniosacral therapy (CST) is also referred to as cranial therapy, cranial sacral therapy, and cranial osteopathy. Its name is derived from the primary focus of the therapy – the craniosacral system – which is comprised of the brain, the spinal cord, and the cerebrospinal fluid that circulates through them. Disruptions in the rhythm of this delicately balanced system – typically caused by physical or emotional trauma – can lead to a variety of problems. These problems often manifest as physical symptoms buy may also appear as psychological symptoms. The resulting dysfunction or imbalance is what craniosacral therapy is designed to treat. By using light touch, CST practitioners work to stimulate healing throughout the body.
How Craniosacral Therapy Works
Our bodies are subjected to various types of stress on a daily basis. Often, it’s a low grade, chronic stress that creates a cumulative impact over time. But sometimes the stress is acutely traumatic, such as a serious physical injury sustained in a car accident or fall, or the intense psychological impact of a sudden natural disaster or violent assault.
As resilient as our bodies are, they can only endure so much stress before serious problems start to arise. As tension builds up in the body – specifically in the central nervous system, where trauma can be stored for days, weeks, or even years – it begins “leaking” out, so to speak, in the form of symptoms – headaches, depression, disrupted sleep, and anxiety, to name a few.
Craniosacral therapy works by allowing the body to process and release this tension and trauma at a pace that doesn’t overwhelm it.
Craniosacral therapists are trained to assess the problems occurring internally with the use of light touch – light as in the weight of a small coin. They will touch different parts of your body to discover areas in which the flow of cerebrospinal fluid or tissue movement is restricted. Once these problem areas are detected, they use specific and gentle manipulation techniques to release the restriction. This helps balance and calm the central nervous system. The end result is that physical and emotional symptoms begin to abate, the mind and body become more resilient to stress, and overall health and well-being are enhanced.
What to Expect
Craniosacral therapy sessions usually last between 45 minutes and an hour. The sessions may be just once per week or as often as three times per week. You’ll meet with your therapist in a quiet, private room. Although CST is a form of bodywork, you will remain fully clothed during the session. The therapist will have you lie down in a relaxed position on a massage table or similar apparatus.
Throughout the session the therapist will lightly touch your body with his or her hands on various parts of your body, primarily your head, spine, and pelvic region. This allows the therapist to assess problem areas. Once assessed, the therapist will gently manipulate the problem area, holding it lightly until the “fascia” – the body’s connective tissue – releases the tension. At times, the therapist may also support a limb or your spine so that tension can be discharged. The manipulation techniques used in CST are much like receiving a gentle massage.
The release of tension may be experienced in different ways. For example, some people experience a sensation of heat leaving the body, while others feel the tissue pulse or relax. Interestingly, the release of tension in one area of the body is often felt in an entirely different location since the body works as a whole, interconnected unit. For example, if the restriction is occurring in the neck or foot, the release of tension may sometimes be felt in the lower back.
Many people experience a profound sense of calm or feeling very grounded following a CST session. Individuals suffering from depression often experience a boost in mood even after the initial session. For those suffering from PTSD or other anxiety disorders, experiencing a sense of calm that they may not have felt in months or years can instill a much-needed sense of hope and encouragement.
Some individuals experience what is known as a somatoemotional release during or following a CST session. This involves a release of the residual emotional impact of a physical injury or psychological trauma that caused the tension to occur. (It should be noted that the term SomatoEmotional Release also refers to a specific therapeutic approach typically used in conjunction with CST to help relieve the effects of all types of unresolved trauma, including physical, psychological, and spiritual trauma.)
The number of sessions required in CST can vary widely from one individual to the next. Even though you may experience significant relief after your first session, you may still need several more in order to completely resolve the symptoms you’re experiencing. Work with your CST practitioner to determine when therapy is complete. Some individuals require very few sessions, while others may need multiple sessions over a period of time.
Disorders, Conditions and Problems That Can Benefit From Craniosacral Therapy
Craniosacral therapy is a holistic therapy that helps restore the flow of craniosacral fluid. In turn, the body’s natural ability to heal itself is restored. This makes craniosacral therapy a beneficial intervention for a variety of physical and psychological disorders, conditions, and problems. They include:
- PTSD and unresolved emotional trauma
- Anxiety disorders / fear
- Chronic stress and related disorders
- Unresolved grief
- Disrupted circadian rhythms
- Traumatic brain injury (TMI)
- Autism spectrum disorder
- ADD and ADHD
- Physical trauma
- Acute and chronic pain, particularly localized back and / or neck pain
- Migraine and other types of headaches
- Congestive heart failure
- Spinal cord injuries
- Central nervous system disorders
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome
- Bruxism (teeth grinding)
- Chronic fatigue
- Learning disorders
- Impaired motor coordination
- Birth injuries
- Colic in infants
- Sinus problems
- Crohn’s disease
- Bell’s Palsy
- Multiple Sclerosis
- ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Menstrual cramps
- Post-partum problems
- Seizure disorders
- Meniere’s disease
- Ear problems
Benefits of Craniosacral Therapy
Craniosacral therapy offers numerous potential benefits, including the following:
- Sense of calm / greater ability to relax
- Improved mood
- Increase in ability to handle stress
- Reduction in symptoms of anxiety
- Better sleep
- Decrease in PTSD symptoms
- Improved overall sense of well-being
- Greater joy
- Increased self-confidence
- A sense of being more grounded
- Reduction in pain symptoms
- Decrease in muscle tension
- Greater ability to concentrate
- Improved immune function
- Improved anger control
- Improved memory
Contraindications for CST
Although CST is generally safe due to its non-invasive, gentle approach, there is a small number of individuals for which this therapeutic approach wouldn’t be recommended. They include individuals who have suffered a recent skull fracture, are experiencing cerebral bleeding, or have had a recent aneurysm – basically anyone with a condition that could be rendered unstable by slight changes to intracranial pressure. If you’ve experienced any of these conditions, or have any similar medical issues (or any other medical concerns) consult with your physician before starting craniosacral therapy.
There are several advantages to craniosacral therapy compared to other therapeutic interventions. Some of the most prominent advantages include:
- It’s non-invasive and very gentle
- No medication is involved in the treatment
- It can address the root of the problem
- By improving the health of the craniosacral system, the entire body benefits
- Many people experience noticeable benefits and relief after just one or two sessions (the total number of sessions required, as with most therapies, will depend on multiple factors and varies from one individual to the next)
- As a holistic approach that connects the mind and the body – and one which takes into consideration the fact that emotional trauma is often stored within the body – it can help relieve troubling psychological symptoms (particularly those associated with PTSD) that may not be positively impacted by talk therapy alone.
Where to Find a Qualified Practitioner
When it comes to finding a qualified craniosacral therapy practitioner, you need to do your due diligence because it can be a bit confusing. There are two primary types of credentials: those who are certified in craniosacral therapy, and those who are certified in cranial osteopathy. Certification isn’t required to practice, but choosing a practitioner who is certified ensures that he or she has completed all the requisite training.
In craniosacral therapy, there are two levels of credentialing: the first is a certification in craniosacral therapy, and the second, more advanced level is a diplomate certification. Regardless of the practitioner you choose, it’s important to find someone who has experience treating a wide variety of conditions.
A variety of healthcare professionals are trained in craniosacral therapy. They include physicians, dentists, chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, nurses, occupational therapists, and other types of professionals as well.
One of the best places to find a certified craniosacral therapist is through the Upledger Institute website.
Practitioners who are trained and certified in cranial osteopathy are typically physicians who hold a D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) or M.D. degree, or dentists. They have received their training and credentials via the Osteopathic Cranial Academy. The certification for those who have completed the rigorous postgraduate coursework is a Certificate of Proficiency in cranial osteopathy.
One of the best places to find a qualified practitioner in cranial osteopathy is through the OCA’s website.
If you’re suffering from PTSD, anxiety, fear, chronic stress, or depression (not to mention a wide variety of physical conditions and symptoms) craniosacral therapy is worth considering. It’s gentle, non-invasive, and very low risk. Some use CST as an adjunct therapy to traditional talk therapy, particularly when symptoms of unresolved trauma, anxiety, or depression aren’t responding sufficiently to talk therapy alone. Others use it as a stand-alone treatment. Since CST doesn’t involve the use of medication to alleviate symptoms, some individuals choose it when they’d rather not take psychiatric medications or when medication is contraindicated.