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Craniosacral Therapy: Making Heads or Tailbones of It

Model skeleton

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.

Profile of person standing with bad posture

This is an example of a neutral (correct) head posture.

Profile of person standing with good posture

This is why it’s important to move on a regular basis and move your body opposite the position it was in. For a quick example, let’s say you sit all day at a desk. Sitting causes bending at your knees, hips, back, head and neck, so it’s important to straighten everything throughout the day. Look at the picture to see a stretch we recommend.

Person stretching shoulders

Another common issue we see is head trauma, ranging from something as mild as bumping your head on a drawer or countertop to something as extreme as a motor vehicle accident or falls causing whiplash or a concussion.

Another is falling on your behind, whether that’s down the stairs on the grass, the cement or ice. Any of those impacts can create dysfunction or imbalance. Something common but often a forgotten cause is the way you bring your teeth together. When you bite your teeth together there can be up to 3-500 pounds of force generated and if you don’t have the same bite on the right compared to the left, that imbalance can create dysfunction.

Try this quick check for your teeth. Try gently touching your back teeth together to see if they are the same on both sides. Chances are that there is some difference. Now add food, anger or stress to the mix, and that difference in pressure can cause one side to bear the force more than the other, leading to clicking, popping, tightness and pain over-time.

Craniosacral dysfunction is not just for adults, it can happen for kids as well. Remember earlier we talked about how the head shape changes and re-shapes after birth? If the birth was traumatic, or the child has multiple head traumas from bumping/falling/hitting on EVERYTHING, there might be impairments that have developed. What can craniosacral dysfunctions cause, in kids, and therefore potentially find relief from? Here are some examples of diagnoses specific to babies/children that could benefit:

  • Shallow, irregular breathing
  • Weak suckle
  • Spinal rigidity
  • Regurgitation/vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Torticollis
  • Colic
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Scoliosis
  • ADHD
  • Childhood headaches
  • Bruxism
  • Talking delays

Why is Craniosacral Therapy Unique?

I’m glad you asked.

Depending on the source you research, most scholars will agree that there are between 25-45 miles of nerves in your body. Either end of that spectrum is still a lot of nerves. All of the nerves in your body run from the brain to the spinal cord and throughout the body in one continuous system. That means if there is a restriction in one area of the nervous system it can create symptoms somewhere else in the body. For instance, increased tension in the vagus nerve can lead to acid reflux in adults, or reflux and constipation in kids.

Your nervous system is the tension regulator of your body. How so? Let’s start simple. Your sympathetic nervous system is your “fight/flight/freeze” system and the parasympathetic is your “rest/digest/heal” system. Increased sympathetic activity causes tightness and doesn’t allow the body to rest and heal. Decreasing the activity of your sympathetic nervous system allows your body to relax, your muscles to chill out and the healing work to begin. Craniosacral therapy helps you to get these systems in check so that they’re operating most optimally.

Find more examples of how craniosacral therapy helped our patients find freedom from their symptoms to live the life they are hoping for at the end of this post!

Why is this a part of Core’s treatment philosophy?

We believe that the body is one functional unit comprised of a lot of working parts and controlled by an ever-changing nervous system. When all of these pieces work together, there is harmony and usually freedom from pain. However, life happens, and over time if the body isn’t able to manage all of the impairments then pain starts to develop as a “help” signal from the body. We often find that where the pain occurs in a person’s body isn’t the real cause of the pain, so our job is to get to the CORE of the problem. Here’s a great picture to illustrate.

Illustration of craniosacral area

Let’s say your skeleton is like this sweater. When you’ve got a snag, whether it’s in the right-hand bottom corner of your sweater or your right hip, the snag pulls everything to itself. With your skeleton, a snag in one place could lead to low back pain, hip or knee pain, shoulder or neck pain. Now imagine how much effort the body uses to try to stabilize against this which requires a lot of hard-work and can lead to fatigue, swelling, and stiffness the longer the body has to work.

Yes, your shoulder gets sore from inflammation after being used the wrong way for a long enough period of time, but the REASON it’s sore is because of tightness in another area (the hip where the snag actually is in this case!). If we find the tightness and make it go away, now the shoulder functions the way it’s supposed to, which automatically resolves the pain.

You might be thinking…how do I know where the problem is? The good news is…that’s our job.

Your body does a great job telling us through our evaluation process of where tightness is and what’s needed to start peeling away the layers to get to the core of the problem. The craniosacral system is a very integral part of the whole functional unit that makes up your body. Sciatica could be present in your left leg because of tightness in the dura of your cranium from the car accident you had 20 years ago. Remember your nerves are all connected, so pressure and tension on one part can affect the whole.

None of what we do shows up on an x-ray or MRI. The craniosacral system shows up as a picture if it’s structurally intact…but the mobility doesn’t. Why does that matter?

Take this picture, for instance:

Diagram of diagnostic imaging

The picture on the left shows someone who has a disc herniation in their middle back, and the right shows an MRI that’s normal for the spine. The person on the left has 0/10 pain (the disc herniation was found incidentally) but the person on the right had 10/10 pain at an ER clinic evaluation.

Pain and the picture are not often related. Sometimes they are, but other times they are not.

The moral of the story is this: craniosacral therapy is used as a multi-faceted treatment approach to figure out what your body needs help with to relieve the pain or pressure and function to its optimal capacity.

You made it through! It’s a ton of information to digest so if you’re looking for the highlights, here they are:

  1. Craniosacral therapy has been around for more than 100 years
  2. Craniosacral therapy helps to relieve tension in the tissues of the nervous system that can have a wide-array of symptoms
  3. Craniosacral therapy is an integral part of the Core Physical Therapy treatment philosophy of treating the whole person instead of just the area of discomfort
  4. Craniosacral therapy is super cool

Over the past 17 years we have been honored to help thousands of people find their best life through craniosacral and myofascial release. We take our company “why” very seriously:

“To partner with you on your journey so that together we can help you live your best life.”

We would be honored to be on your team and help you find your best life so please reach out and give us a call today.

Now, as promised, here are a few of the many ways craniosacral therapy has made a positive impact on our patients told from our team of physical therapists.

“I had a patient referred for chronic headaches and neck pain that developed after having a mild stroke a year ago that had gotten a lot worse over the past three months with an intensity of 8-9/10 at its worst. He had sharp pain around his eyes with coughing and sneezing, in addition to increased pain with lying down at night. Using craniosacral therapy, he reported a significant reduction in the intensity and frequency of his headaches. He was able to go 2 weeks with only 1-2 headaches (compared to daily), and intensity of 2-3/10 (instead of 8-9/10). For people who struggle with daily headaches being able to make a significant change like this can be life-changing.”

“I had a patient with trigeminal neuralgia-type symptoms–intermittent sharp pains into the jaw area that were completely resolved in 1-2 visits. With another woman that had the same symptoms, the treatment pointed out that she had an inflamed tooth and nerve root from an old root canal and it led her to the dentist who needed to clean that up. They had missed a nerve root previously. This also contributed to her healing.”

“I had a patient with years-long disembarkment syndrome/symptoms, where the world is shifting around you. She had been to the ENT/had MRI’s etc, and nothing was helping her. She had to take daily medication to take those symptoms away. It took her about a month of cranial treatment until those symptoms had ceased. She rarely ever has to take one of those pills…even 5+ years later.”

“I have a patient who had a traumatic brain injury 5 years ago and had a constant headache at the level of 8/10.  After quite a few treatments, his headache symptoms decreased to a 5-6/10, and he was able to go out to lunch with his wife for the first time in 5 years.”

“I had a patient who had multiple nasal surgeries and eventually lost taste and smell. Using craniosacral therapy, the patient was able to restore a lot of her taste and smell so she could enjoy the foods she loved once again. It didn’t 100% restore these senses but she was very happy with the improvement in her quality of life because of it.”

“I had a patient come in with neck pain and headaches and treated with craniosacral.  As headaches and neck pain resolved, she also noted improvements in her anxiety.”

“A patient came in for a balance or vestibular referral. The patient had lots of head and ear surgeries and chronic ear infections her whole life.  She also couldn’t sleep more than two hours at a time and had to sleep on the floor, which is hard for someone in their seventies. She also had head, neck, jaw pain, brain fog, and could hardly turn her neck which made driving, and generally life, miserable. Since starting treatment with her she is sleeping through the night at least 2 times each week, can go more than 1 day without brain fog, quilts for hours, sleeps on a mattress, and has the ability, with her exercises, to keep her head and neck pain low.”

“I had a patient who was referred for head and neck pain, balance issues and vertigo associated from epilepsy. Working together with her team of doctors, we were able to help reduce the intensity and severity of all of her symptoms associated with her epilepsy.”

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