If you’re a fan of massage therapy, chiropractic manipulation or alternative practices like acupuncture, you may have heard of craniosacral therapy also known as cranial sacral therapy (CST).

This gentle, hands-on cradling is said to release tensions deep in the body to reduce pain and dysfunction, unstick blockages and muscle contractions and improve a number of health complaints.

It was pioneered and developed by osteopathic physician John E. Upledger, and is typically performed by licensed massage therapists, physical therapists, chiropractors and osteopathic physicians.

Using a soft touch — generally no greater than 5 grams, the weight of a nickel — practitioners feel for the pulse of the spinal fluid between the cranium and the sacrum (the base of the spine). This pulsating sensation is said to be different from the heartbeat. With a gentle touch, practitioners release restrictions in the soft tissues that surround the central nervous system so this fluid flows more effectively, helping the body function normally again.

Sessions for adults last 30 minutes to an hour, and for children may consist of only 10-15 minutes.

The therapy can be used to help relieve headaches, neck and back pain, problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), chronic fatigue, the immune system and many other conditions.

Mary Ann Block, DO, PA, an osteopathic physician at the Block Center in Dallas/ Fort Worth says the practice is done completely by feel. “It’s a pulsating. We feel the fluids that pulsate through the body from the cerebral spinal fluid, the blood to the arteries and veins, and it’s a pulsation that once you tune into it it’s very easy to feel.”

Block explains treatment normalizes any imbalances by getting the spinal fluid flowing properly and releasing tensions and restrictions throughout the body.

Nourhy Beatrize, LMT, of NowStudio in Chicago says that when she practices the therapy, she’s trying to feel the sensation in the spinal column and what’s going on in the body as the muscles relax. She’s trying to get the body’s infrastructure to self-adjust without any hard cracking or popping manipulations.

Most people feel a floating sensation during treatment — and complete relaxation. It’s a very calming state, and the touch is so light that often people aren’t even aware of where on the body the practitioner is working.

Beatrize starts at the head and lets the fluid dictate where she travels to throughout the body using the gentle touch to free restrictions she feels in the pulsing spinal fluid.

“As a standalone treatment, it is way different from massage and so relaxing that some people actually prefer it to massage — and you get the same benefits,” says Beatrize.

It also may be right for those who are autistic, those who don’t like to be touched and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable taking off their clothes — since you don’t have to disrobe for the treatment.

Beatrize says massage is more of a muscular treatment. Muscles are beat up and manipulated into relaxation whereas cranial sacral therapy is a nervous system treatment. When the brain lets go and the nervous system balances, everything else functions properly.

“The spinal cord has its own rhythm not connected to the heartbeat,” says Beatrize.

Beatrize treats clients with headaches, neck and back pain, hip pain, immune system problems, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and TMJ as well as those with autism, learning disabilities and infants and children.

On the other hand

Cranial sacral therapy is not without its detractors. There are very few published studies proving the benefits are similar to many other alternative therapies such as Reiki, acupuncture and ayurvedic medicine.

Block explains that not enough osteopathic physicians practice cranial sacral; as a result, many physical therapists, licensed massage therapists, chiropractors and other body workers have been trained in the practice.

The Upledger Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is the foremost authority on the practice and where most practitioners get their training. Block says when looking for a practitioner, ask how much training they’ve had, how long they’ve been practicing cranial sacral therapy and how often they do it in their practice. You can start your search for a therapist with the institute's Find a Practitioner page, and as with any such practice, it's a good idea to get referrals.

Depending on the problem, you may start out with a once-a-week session for a few weeks with the goal to go longer between sessions and finally not need them.

“My goal is to get people well and out of my office and not coming back,” says Block.

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