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Craniosacral therapy, the manipulation of bones of the skull to influence muscle activies in other parts of the body, has been around for 40 years. While many claims for the method are exaggerated, there are some situations in which it clearly works.

At first glance, craniosacral therapy would seem to be one of the therapies that deserves its place on Quackwatch.

The name of the therapy refers to the manipulation of the cranium, the skull, and the sacrum, the lowest part of the spine where the backbone connects to the hip bones and tail bones. In the 1890's, an American osteopath named William Sutherland developed a treatment technique called cranial osteopathy. He had noticed that bones of the skull were beveled, like the gills of a fish. From this he concluded that the bones of the skull constituted a "respiratory mechanism" that allowed the brain to breathe.

The idea that human skull bones are analogous to fish gills is, of course, ridiculous, but 80 years later another American osteopath, John Upledger (1932-2012), working with a professor of anatomy and histology at Michigan State University named Ernest W. Retzlaff (1918-1979), were inspired by the idea of cranial osteopathy to look for "pulses" in the skull. Finding evidence of pulsating skull bones, which has not been found by anyone else, they theorized that the skull bones acted as a kind of "heart" for cerebrospinal fluid, sending waves of nourishment down the spine that made normal muscle movement possible. Applications of this theory came to be known as craniosacral therapy.

From Dubious Observation To Cure-All

Disciples of John Upledger eagerly adopted the new theories of craniosacral therapy to treating an enormous range of diseases. Upledger and the craniosacral therapists who followed him developed an idea that spinal fluid and the bloodstream interact, and manipulating skull bones could change blood flow. This principle was known as the inherent motility of the nervous system.

Because the fluids of the brain and spine tend to move around, that is, they are motile, practitioners of the new therapy began to diagnose fluctuation of the cerebrospinal fluid. Upledger had observed mobility of the intracranial and intraspinal membranes, the protective covering of the nerves, during an operation. He theorized that manipulating the fascia, the connective tissue that joins the muscles and other tissues to the skeleton, could rebalance the flow of fluids through the spinal column. Due to the theoretical mobility of the cranial bones, treatment of the head could also affect muscles and blood all over the body.

A Very Gentle Treatment

Of course, the idea of pounding on and yanking at cranial bones to try to make the skull flexible is horrific and dangerous. However, Upledger conveniently offered that pressure as slight as 5 grams (about the weight of a small coin, like an American nickel) was enough to move the sutures connecting the skull bones. Very light touch could also be applied to the back and pelvis.

The problem with craniosacral therapy came about when newly trained craniosacral therapists began to claim it could cure cancer, and also a long list of other hard-to-treat conditions, including:

  • Autism
  • Brain and Spinal Cord Injuries
  • Central Nervous System Disorders
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Chronic Neck and Back Pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Infant and Childhood Disorders
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Migraines and Headaches
  • Motor-Coordination Impairments
  • Orthopedic Problems
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Scoliosis
  • Stress and Tension-Related Disorders
  • TMJ Syndrome

Craniosacral therapy is typically harmless in itself, but if patients abandon other needed treatments, there can be disastrous results. However, there seems to be one application for the therapy for which it is genuinely useful.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Haller H, Cramer H, Werner M, Dobos G. Treating the Sequelae of Postoperative Meningioma and Traumatic Brain Injury: A Case of Implementation of Craniosacral Therapy in Integrative Inpatient Care.J Altern Complement Med. 2015 Jan 21. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 25607593.
  • Jäkel A, von Hauenschild P. Therapeutic effects of cranial osteopathic manipulative medicine: a systematic review. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2011 Dec.111(12):685-93. Review. PMID: 22182954.
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