By Catherine Guthrie
What is cranial therapy?
Cranial therapy (also called cranial osteopathy and craniosacral therapy) is based on the theory, developed by a 1930s osteopathic physician, that the bones of the skull never fully fuse and can be delicately manipulated to treat illness. The idea is that trauma, such as a blow to the head or back, extensive dental work, or even a habit of clenching your teeth, can subtly shift the bones in your skull or spine. Such an injury, proponents believe, disturbs the rhythmic flow of the fluid encasing the brain and spinal cord, which can cause pain and tension elsewhere in the body. Practitioners claim that by applying gentle pressure at various places, they can restore this rhythmic flow; bring the bones back into alignment; and relieve chronic headaches, muscle tension, and joint pain, as well as emotional disorders such as depression and PMS.
What does treatment involve?
After completing a health history form, you'll lie fully clothed on a padded table. Your practitioner will start by reading your "cranial rhythm" with his hands placed at the base of your skull (cranium) or tailbone (sacrum). Some work solely in these areas, but a more experienced therapist will then move his fingers over the rest of your body, looking for areas where the pulse is restricted and restoring its rhythm with a light, steady pressure that amounts to no more than the weight of a nickel. Some people fall into a light sleep; others experience a floating sensation. A typical session lasts 45 to 75 minutes and costs between $40 to $200. You should be able to tell if the therapy is working after just a few sessions.
What is the theory behind cranial therapy?
The theory is a controversial one. The craniosacral system consists of the membranes and fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord and separate them from the bloodstream. Proponents of cranial therapy believe that the rhythmic movement of the fluid creates a kind of pulse as it filters through the membranes carrying nutrients from the blood to the brain. Their theory holds that trauma can cause the jigsaw puzzle-like bones of the skull to shift out of sync and interrupt the motion of the fluid. By subtly manipulating your skull, spine, or soft tissue, a practitioner aims to restore the flow of the fluid, which is thought to affect your nervous system as well as connective tissues linking all organs, bones, and muscles in your body.
No studies have documented the effectiveness of this therapy. And none of its tenets is supported by conventional science, which contends that the bones of your skull fuse together firmly by the age of two and that it is impossible to manipulate them or the underlying membranes and fluid by pressing with the hands. The existence of the pulse itself is also controversial. In fact, two professors at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine found no evidence of cranial therapy's effectiveness after reviewing available data in 2002, and recommended that it be dropped from college curriculums.
How safe is it?
The light touch of cranial therapy makes it safer than a Swedish massage or chiropractic session. In fact, pediatric osteopaths use it to treat colic and ear infections in children; be aware, however, that doctors warn against any form of manipulation before an infant's skull has fused. Cranial proponents say the therapy is not appropriate if you have recently suffered a brain aneurysm or skull fracture or if you are severely depressed. As always, check with your doctor first if you suspect that you have any kind of serious illness.
Interview with Roy Desjarlais, CranioSacral clinician and instructor at the Upledger Institute, Palm Beach Gardens, FL.
Barrie Cassileth, PhD. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York: W.W. Norton and Company 1998.
Anne Woodham and David Peters, MD. Encyclopedia of Healing Therapies. New York: DK Publishing 1997.
Hartman SE et al. Interexaminer reliability and cranial osteopathy. Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. 6(1):23-34. 2002.
Hartman SE. Cranial Osteopathy: Its Fate Seems Clear. Chiropractic & Osteopathy. June 2006. 14(1):10.