top of page

What is CranioSacral Therapy?

CranioSacral Therapy is a very gentle and relaxing form of hands-on therapy in which particular attention is paid to tension within the dura mater, the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. This membrane attaches to the inside of the skull (or cranium) and to the tailbone (or sacrum), hence the name. The craniosacral system (the dura mater, the bones to which it is attached, and the cerebrospinal fluid inside) controls the internal environment in which the brain and spinal cord operate and thus exerts a powerful influence upon the functioning of the entire body.

All the nerves and blood vessels going to and from the brain and spinal cord pass through the dura mater membrane. Abnormal tension in this membrane which puts pressure on the nerves can disrupt the functioning of the central nervous system, causing many neurological problems. The central nervous system is responsible, among other things, for transmitting pain impulses to the brain. Pressure on veins coming out of the skull can decrease fluid drainage out of the skull, reducing the nutrition and oxygen to the brain and spinal cord. In addition, the pituitary gland, the master hormone gland of the body, sits at the base of the brain directly on the dura mater. Thus abnormal membrane tension can have profound effects not only on the brain and spinal cord, but on the rest of the body as well.

Tension within the dura mater is detected primarily by means of its effect upon the tiny rhythmic motion of the bones of the skull and the tailbone to which the dura is attached. The motion of these bones was first recognized by William Sutherland, DO in the early 1900s. Dr. Sutherland developed many techniques for releasing compression in the cranial bones and founded the field of Cranial Osteopathy. More recently CranioSacral Therapy was developed and refined by John Upledger, DO, OMM.

The body regulates the pressure of the cerebrospinal fluid which surrounds the brain and spinal cord very carefully, keeping it within narrow limits, with the result that this pressure rises and falls rhythmically every 6 to 12 seconds. This craniosacral rhythm can be palpated anywhere on the body and is the assessment tool that forms the basis of CranioSacral Therapy. By paying close attention to this rhythm the therapist is able to locate restrictions and areas of abnormal tension, and to facilitate their release. In effect, the CranioSacral therapist works on the body from the core outwards, rather than starting at the periphery and working in.

What is CranioSacral Therapy Good For?

CranioSacral Therapy has been found to be useful in treating a wide variety of conditions, both in adults and children, ranging from back pain to the after effects of meningitis and encephalitis. It is especially effective for treating headaches and chronic pain. Upledger found that 80 to 85% of resistant long term headache patients respond favorably to CranioSacral Therapy. In most of these cases he has found that once the craniosacral system is functioning properly and the headaches are gone, they do not return.

CranioSacral Therapy is an effective treatment for certain types of endogenous depression (depression for which there is no apparent cause). Often people with this type of depression will exhibit simultaneous compression of the tailbone onto the lowest lumbar vertebrae, compression of the skull onto the neck, and compression of a key joint within the skull itself. Relieving all three areas of compression simultaneously will often immediately alleviate the depression. Many times as the compression is relieved, the client will remember a fall or an accident in which they struck their head or tailbone. If the three areas of compression are not present, the depression is most likely due to another cause and CranioSacral Therapy will probably be less effective, although it may still be helpful.

Newborns often experience trauma during birth, either from a long and difficult labor, from having their head hyper-extended upon the neck during delivery, or as a result of rapid decompression if they are delivered by C-section. This may result in compression of one or more of the bones of the skull or induce a torsion within the dura mater tube surrounding the spinal cord. Such children may exhibit a variety of problems such as colic and digestive difficulties, learning disabilities such as dyslexia (difficulty reading) or dyscalcula (difficulty doing math), hyperactivity, scoliosis, or in severe cases seizures or cerebral palsy. CranioSacral Therapy has been shown to be quite effective at treating such disorders provided the fault lies within the craniosacral system. Upledger reports being able to help 70% of children with dyslexia and between 50 and 60% of children who are hyperactive. Upledger believes that routine CranioSacral evaluation and treatment of newborns could reduce the incidence of brain dysfunctions in children by at least 50 percent.

A partial and by no means complete list of conditions for which CranioSacral Therapy has been shown to be helpful, often in conjunction with other forms of treatment, includes TMJ problems, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, acute local and systemic infections, high fever, osteo and rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral ischemic episodes (small strokes), ear problems such as tinnitus, and some visual disturbances. The degree to which the therapy is effective in any given case depends largely on the extent to which the problem involves the craniosacral system.

What is a CranioSacral Therapy Session Like?


In CranioSacral Therapy the practitioner acts primarily as a facilitator, tuning in to subtle patterns of tension within the client's body and guiding the body towards release. Very light pressure is used, typically of the order of 5 grams or the equivalent weight of a nickel. A universal response of any living organism to pressure is to tense up and guard. By working very lightly and being very patient, the CranioSacral therapist is able to stay below the threshold at which this guarding response occurs and facilitate permanent change.

As a client, you should wear loose comfortable clothing. The therapist will probably spend a few minutes palpating and assessing the tension patterns in your body, often starting at the feet and working up to the head. Once the therapist has located the primary areas of restriction, he or she will begin to work on gently releasing the tissue. Often the principal area of restriction may not be the area in which the client feels the pain or dysfunction, and people are often surprised when, for example, their headache or neck pain eases as the therapist works on their tailbone, or even on their ankle.

CranioSacral Therapy is very relaxing and people sometimes even fall asleep on the table. Part of the therapeutic process seems to be getting the conscious mind out of the way so the body can release its tension. We always tell our clients that cranial work is never done when the session is over and to expect that the body will continue to release over the next few days.

Who Can Do CranioSacral Therapy?

There are several people in Bellingham who do CranioSacral Therapy. In general, CranioSacral Therapy can be done by anyone that has had the proper training and has an appropriate health care license. This includes medical doctors (MDs), osteopathic physicians, chiropractors, naturopathic physicians, acupuncturists, dentists, registered nurses, physical and occupational therapists, and massage therapists, among others. I received my training through the Upledger Institute, Palm Beach, Florida. In my practice I use primarily CranioSacral Therapy and the related techniques of Visceral Manipulation, and Lymphatic Drainage.

Where Can I get More Information?

Dr. Upledger wrote several excellent books on CranioSacral Therapy for the layman.  Of particular interest are "Your Inner Physician and You,” "CranioSacral Therapy - Touchstone for Natural Healing,” and “SomatoEmotional Release – Deciphering the Language of Life.” He also wrote several more technical treatises. The first of these, written in collaboration with Jon Vredevoogd, is entitled "CranioSacral Therapy.” 

Massage Therapists do not diagnose illness or prescribe medical treatment or pharmaceuticals. CranioSacral Therapy is not a substitute for a medical examination or for psychological counseling.

bottom of page