Craniosacral Therapy - Helping the Body Heal Itself

By: Dwight Franklin

When my career as a massage therapist started as a student at Bodyworks Massage Institute, I never could have imagined the different types of holistic therapies that would be introduced to me. When I thought of being a massage therapist I had the typical notions of working at a day spa or even working aboard a cruise ship. At this point in my early massage career I just did not understand what massage therapy could offer. I could not believe that the therapy that I could give as a massage therapist could be complimentary to traditional western medicine and even the most appropriate treatment in certain circumstances. That was until I was introduced to Craniosacral Therapy.

​Craniosacral Therapy is a system of very light touch that is used to evaluate and treat the body in order to enhance the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Health care practitioners have used this very gentle therapy worldwide to treat and improve upon countless diseases and dysfunctions. Because Craniosacral Therapy directly improves the brain’s ability to function properly, there is virtually no health condition that doesn’t show some improvement by use of this therapy. I have personally seen chronic pain in some clients disappear with a couple treatments, children with fluid build-up in their ears drastically improved upon by a single session, and clients with low energy levels tell me in follow-up visits that they simply can’t believe how much better they feel after their treatments. Although these results may seem too good to be true or that I am offering you some sort of New Age, miracle cure all, I can honestly say that Craniosacral Therapy is neither of those things. All that I am offering to you is a therapy, that’s main purpose is to help your body function at peak performance, that is going to remove the restrictions in your body keeping you from that level of performance, and a therapy that has been clinically tested and studied by physicians throughout the world.

The Craniosacral System

​As I learned in my training, the craniosacral system is composed of two main anatomic parts: the connective tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, called the meninges, and the fluid that is circulated within the meninges, called cerebrospinal fluid. The meninges are constructed of three separate layers: the dura mater, the arachnoid mater, and the pia mater. The dura mater surrounds the brain and spinal cord. It is a tough and mostly inelastic connective tissue that is fused with the internal skull. The arachnoid mater is a thin connective tissue that is separated from the dura and pia mater by the subdural and subarachnoid spaces. The subarachnoid space is especially important because it holds the cerebrospinal fluid, which we will be discussing shortly. The pia mater is the highly vascularized, very delicate internal layer of the meninges. It follows all of the nooks and crannies of the brain and spinal cord and delivers the blood supply. Basically if you were to observe your own spinal cord and its surrounding structures it would be built very similar to your typical pita wrap sandwich. You first have your pita bread that holds everything else inside (dura mater). Then you have a layer of vegetables (arachnoid mater). Next, you will usually see some sort of special sauce added (cerebrospinal fluid), which is usually the most important part of the wrap. And lastly we will see some type of cheese (pia mater) lying directly on the meat of choice (spinal cord).

​Now to discuss the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and the structures related to its production, reabsorption, and containment. The choroid plexuses of the ventricular system produce the CSF, which then fills the four ventricles of the brain. Once the last ventricle is filled, the CSF passes into the subarachnoid space where it circulates around the outside of the brain and spinal cord. CSF at this point cushions and nourishes the brain and spinal cord. Reabsorption of the cerebrospinal fluid happens within the arachnoid bodies (areas of the arachnoid mater that are located around the brain) that then place the cerebrospinal fluid back into the venous blood circulation. 

Delbert’s Dilemma

​Are you starting to realize that this may not be your typical holistic or alternative therapy? Maybe your wondering how this detailed information of the brain was used to create Craniosacral Therapy? Well, it all started with a man by the name of Dr. John Upledger, an osteopathic physician. In 1970, Dr. Upledger was treating a man by the name of Delbert. Delbert was experiencing an odd symptom in which the bottoms of his feet were turning black and had become extremely painful. Dr. Upledger consulted with a neurosurgeon, who had recently been hired by the hospital that Dr. Upledger worked for, and the neurosurgeon had an answer. He had seen this same symptom before and a calcium-plaque build up on the meninges was the cause. Removing this plaque would be a very risky surgical procedure. If the meninges were accidentally cut, that would expose Delbert to possible meningitis (an infection of the meninges). With the risks explained to him Delbert chose to have the surgery and Dr. Upledger was asked to assist by the neurosurgeon.

​Finding the Rhythm 

​During the surgery, Dr. Upledger had only one task given to him; hold the meninges in place so that the neurosurgeon could safely remove the plaque. Although this seemed simple enough, he found it to be much more difficult than he had originally believed it to be. The meninges seemed to be moving at a controlled bodily rate that was separate from both the heart and respiratory rate. The connective tissue that he was trying to hold still was moving back and forth at a rate of about six times per minute. This was an involuntary movement that had never been documented or possibly even witnessed before. Both Dr. Upledger and the neurosurgeon were astounded by their find, but had to set it aside for the time being until the surgery was completed successfully.

The Semi-Closed Hydraulic System

​After the surgery was completed successfully and Delbert recovered, Dr. Upledger had an extremely important question left to answer, what was causing this movement of the meninges? After much study and deliberation with different physician groups, Dr. Upledger thought he had an answer. The craniosacral system works as a semi-closed hydraulic system. As many of you know, a semi-closed hydraulic system is when fluid is pumped in and out of a confined space at a controlled rate.

​The semi-closed hydraulic system of the craniosacral system works in this manner: Cerebrospinal fluid is produced into the craniosacral system, via the choroid plexuses, at twice the rate as it is reabsorbed from the craniosacral system, via the arachnoid bodies. Once the production of cerebrospinal fluid causes an upper threshold of pressure on the system, production of the fluid stops. Thus, causing the fluid pressure to drop. Once a lower threshold of fluid is reached, the production of cerebrospinal fluid resumes and fluid pressure begins to rise once again. This causes a rhythmic rise and fall of fluid pressure within the craniosacral system. There can be anywhere from 6 to 12 cycles of this production and reabsorption of cerebrospinal fluid within any given minute.

​The theory behind Craniosacral Therapy is directly related with this rise and fall of cerebrospinal fluid within the craniosacral system. If there are any restrictions within the meninges itself or the bones that surround and attach directly to the meninges, there is going to be a restriction in how much nourishing fluid can be received by the brain and spinal cord. Naturally if the brain and spinal cord are not getting the nourishment that they need to function there are going to be problems. You can think of restrictions of the craniosacral system much like a water hose with a small kink in it. Until the kink is taken out the water isn’t going to flow with the amount of pressure and fluidity that it was meant to. Just as if you were to have an accident in which the bone of your forehead (frontal bone) was compressed and restricted, this restriction limits the space in which cerebrospinal fluid can fill and therefore, limiting the amount of nourishment to the brain.

Finding the Restrictions

​Restrictions of the craniosacral system can be caused by either physical traumas or stress related traumas, in which your body has to make changes to adapt to the constant stress. Now, how we find and remove these restrictions with Craniosacral Therapy will be rather controversial to some in the medical community.

​The first step we take is we find the restrictions by evaluating the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the craniosacral system. When cerebrospinal fluid enters and leaves the craniosacral system, it causes movement to happen over the entire body. The sacrum (tail bone) rocks forward and then back. Even though the craniosacral system only extends from the skull to the sacrum, the rest of the body moves internally and then externally due to the force and vibration that the movement of fluid causes. You can understand this if you think of how an earthquake operates. Sure, the actual earthquake may be in a localized area, but the movement of earth will be felt over a larger distance due to the outward vibration that the earthquake causes. The last area of the body that we evaluate (and where the most controversy comes into play) is the skull. That’s right, I said it, the bones of the skull do have movement. I know most of you were taught in school that the bones of the skull fuse together with each other after birth, but this is simply not true. In British anatomy, where we have taken much of our education from, embalmed cadavers were used. The sutures (joints between the bones of the skull) looked as though they were completely fused together, because like the other tissues of the body, the connective tissue and blood vessels that were between these sutures had rapidly been destroyed due to the embalming. In Italian anatomy, where fresh cadavers were used for study, we can see that the connective tissue and blood vessels remain intact. This allows for about 1/16 of an inch of movement between these sutures. This may not seem like much, but it can make all the difference in the world. If we look back to our example of the water hose, the kink may be very small in relationship to the entire hose, but that small kink can completely off set the natural flow of water. So when evaluating the movement of the skull there is a flexion phase in which the bones of the skull expand, and there is an extension phase where the bones of the skull retract and narrow.

​When evaluating the flow of cerebrospinal fluid within the system we use a process called SQAR, which stands for symmetry, quality, amplitude, and rate. Symmetry refers to whether or not both sides of the body are symmetrical in movement. Quality refers to the movement in that area of the body, does it flow naturally or is it more of a jerky and shaky motion. Amplitude refers to whether or not that area of the body moves fully into flexion (outward) and fully into extension (inward) or does it fall short of its movement destination. And rate of course refers to the rate at which the cycles of cerebrospinal fluid flow, is it more toward the low end of 6 cycles per minute or the high end of 12 cycles per minute.

Correcting the Restrictions

​After finding the major restrictions of the body, we use what craniosacral therapists call the 10-step protocol to treat the person. This protocol is 10 different techniques that are done by applying very light touch (about 5 grams of pressure) to the different bones of the craniosacral system. This would include the sacrum (tail bone), vertebrae, and the bones of the skull. Because the meninges attaches directly to these bones, we are able to use the bones as handles to lengthen, widen and remove any restrictions from the meninges. With this increased space that we have created, we can now have more cerebrospinal fluid and a better functioning brain. A skilled therapist may even bypass the 10-step protocol and work with only a couple of techniques in one or two areas that they deem best suited for the quickest results with that particular patient.

​Many of you are probably wondering why we use such light pressure with Craniosacral Therapy. It’s very simple, we only want to be interacting with the bones and the meninges underneath. If we were to use more pressure the muscles would tense and stop any movement from occurring. The thought process is that gentle pressure over an extended period of time is much more effective and safe than a more aggressive pressure over a short period of time. 

Can Craniosacral Therapy Help You?

​As I said previously, Craniosacral Therapy has been known to help and sometimes correct countless dysfunctions of the body. If your disease or dysfunction could be benefited by your nervous system functioning at a higher level, than yes Craniosacral Therapy can help! Even in cases where the nervous system is not the primary problem area such as acute pain, Craniosacral Therapy can still be greatly beneficial due to the fact that the therapist is directly working to remove restrictions within the connective tissue of the body. The best part about this therapy is the only changes that you have are positive. Because the touch in Craniosacral Therapy is so light, there is no risk involved of making your condition worse. I have personally worked with many people of many shapes and sizes, and with many diverse body dysfunctions. I have seen: small children with autism become more loving and sociable, adults with chronic pain get dramatic relief, the most depressed person, who has seemingly lost all control over their life, take that life back and become a happy, healthy individual. So why not give Craniosacral Therapy a chance, it could be the answer you and your body have been searching for.

Works Cited

Upledger, John E. Craniosacral Therapy. Seattle, Washington: Eastland Press, 1983

Upledger John E. Your Inner Physician and You. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1997
                                                        Works Cited   Upledger, John E. Craniosacral Therapy. Seattle, Washington: Eastland             Press, 1983   Upledger John E. Your Inner Physician and You. Berkeley, California: North           Atlantic Books, 1997                  

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