Craniosacral Therapy: Making Heads or Tailbones of It

Home Blog Craniosacral Therapy: Making Heads or Tailbones of It
Craniosacral Therapy: Making Heads or Tailbones of It

Say craniosacral therapy and you get a lot of weird looks. Is this a new-age thing? Did someone just make this up? Can it actually make a difference with my pain?

No, no, and YES!

Craniosacral therapy has been around for years but not every physical therapy clinic uses this technique. In fact, we are one of the few providers in the Des Moines area who do.

Why? Because it works. We’ve found time and time again craniosacral therapy to be the way we’re able to help our patients relieve their pain when they haven’t gotten results elsewhere.

Here it right from the mouth of one of our physical therapists:

“I have a patient who was on constant, significant migraine medication with no real migraine relief. After treatment, she's given up nearly all migraine medications and only needs a treatment every 2 months or so to decrease her migraine symptoms.”

Need another one?

“I have a patient who complained of numbness and tingling in both her arms and legs every morning after waking up. After doing some craniosacral therapy in our first appointment, she hasn't woken up with numbness or tingling in her arms or legs since.”

Still not convinced?

“I had a patient come to me for help with debilitating pain in the backs of the legs. Through craniosacral therapy, we were able to find the root cause and within a few weeks of treatments, he began to wake with less pain and was able to climb stairs, walk for exercise, and bend over.”

We could do this all day long (scroll to the end for more!) but first we want to explain what craniosacral therapy is and how it can help you.

Put on your study glasses, it’s time to nerd out.

Born From Osteopathy

Craniosacral Therapy was developed out of osteopathy, a treatment approach that came about in the 1800’s when medication was very limited in its development and application. If you’ve seen D.O. behind a doctor’s name, that D.O stands for “Doctor of Osteopathy”. One of the fundamental pillars of osteopathy is that the body is a balanced, homeostatic mechanism capable of self-healing.


At its core, homeostasis is the body wanting to operate in a balanced environment with the capacity to heal and fix itself. Remember when you had a cut on your finger (darn tomato), and you would put a bandage on to stop the bleeding? Well, underneath, the body was doing its own thing to create a scab or new layer of skin. Now you have a scar that functions just like the skin around it, returning your body to a steady state. How cool is that when you think about it?

As osteopathy progressed, one particular D.O., Dr. William Sutherland, found himself fascinated by a disarticulated skull with sutures that looked like fish gills. A suture in the cranium (your head) is the place where two bones meet and are held together by connective tissue…basically a joint. Take a look at this “exploded skull” that shows all the bones and where they are relative to one another so you can see how they work together.

Dr. Sutherland couldn’t get this image of a skull out of his head for 20 years. I get frustrated when I can’t get a song out of my head for one day, not to mention an idea for 20 years! He started studying the cranium: how it’s put together, how it functions and what happens if it can’t function the way it was designed.

He was so committed to the process that he would perform self-experiments by putting helmets and clamps on different areas of his head to see what physical symptoms it would cause. Once symptoms developed, he would figure out how to resolve his self-inflicted symptoms and document these discoveries. He often utilized his spouse to help put on the contraptions, adjust tension, and deal with the response. A real-life “for better or worse!” scenario if you will.

Interestingly, Dr. Sutherland noted mental/emotional responses such as anxiety, depression, and anger and was able to resolve these with his treatments as well. Out of this intense dedication came the development of the craniosacral techniques we practice at Core to this day.

You might be thinking…I don’t want any helmets/clamps or torture devices on my head! Good news, the techniques we use are just with our hands and are very comfortable and relaxing to receive. Phew…right?!

My Head is Moving?

Dr. Sutherland was in awe of the exquisite interlocking sutures and through years of studying learned that the sutures form because of small, rhythmic motions of the bones.

This begs the question… “My head moves? I can’t feel it or see it so how can that be true?

The bones are hard, but the 22 cranium and face bones make up to 100 different joints that move at very small but measurable amounts. So, the answer to the question is…YES!

Let’s break it down.

From the moment of conception, our brains and nervous systems are constantly expanding and contracting. Researchers and clinicians who practice craniosacral therapy have called this the cranio-rhythmic impulse or CRI. This describes the contracting and relaxing nature of the nervous system, which allows normal processes like the intake of nutrients, oxygen or getting rid of toxins or waste. The place this process originates is debated but the fundamental truth is that there is motion and it was documented by an oscilloscope a number of years ago. The nervous system expands and contracts 10-14 times per minute, 24/7, without any effort on your part.

Because of this, the skull HAS to move to accommodate for this rhythmic motion. Remember that cute little baby right after they were born? Chances are their head was misshaped from the birth process. But as the child gets older, the head often self-corrects to look like a “normal head”. When babies are born, the bones are not fully developed in size and continue to grow together, floating on the connective tissue called dura in order to fully come together around the age of two. Think of the dura as a water balloon that is attached to the skull and suspends your brain in fluid to cushion and protect the brain. It keeps pressure from mounting on the soft tissue and protects you from shock waves that come with things like whiplash or head-banging at your favorite concert!

As kids continue to grow, the head grows with them and sutures between the bones never close. In fact, there is documented evidence in 95 year olds that the sutures are still present, never fully closed!

The Sacral Side of Things

Now that we’ve covered the “cranial” end of craniosacral therapy, it’s time to talk about the “sacral” end. The sacrum is a triangular bone between your pelvis. When we are born this bone is made up of five different vertebrae but as we age it quickly fuses together to become one bone. What makes this bone integral for the craniosacral system is what attaches on the inside of the bone.

The dura (think back to the water balloon from earlier) attaches to the cranium and the other end is attached at the sacrum, inside the bone. Cranium on one end, sacrum on the other. Head to tailbone.

This system is dynamic, so that when we bend or twist on one side, it’ll stretch or relax the other. The sacrum is also the junction between your low back and pelvis, so craniosacral therapy can be integral in the treatment of neck and low back pain which currently accounts for approximately $134 billion spent. For those curious about our national economy, the next biggest healthcare condition is diabetes at $111 billion and ischemic heart disease at $89 billion. On a scale of no deal or big deal, this can be a big deal for all those suffering from low back and neck pain that haven’t found relief elsewhere.

What Issues Can Craniosacral Treatment Help With?

A great question and one we hear a lot. There are many different causes of dysfunction or impairments of the craniosacral system. Poor posture is a HUGE culprit. Remember, this system has two ends, your head and sacrum (pelvis), so sitting over time can lead to tightness and potentially a dysfunction as well.

Prolonged head and neck flexion, meaning long positions of bending forward looking down. This could range from texting or streaming Netflix, working at a desk with poor ergonomics or posture…the activities are endless, but the position is the same. 

This is an example of a forward (incorrect) head posture.