Physiological Foundations, Therapeutic Approach, Benefits, & Complementary Therapies
Special thanks: Much of this article is excerpted from Rhythm and Touch: The Fundamentals of Craniosacral Therapy by Anthony P. Arnold, PhD.
Please note: I have combined writing from 'Introduction' and 'Chapter 7: The Cranial Vault' to provide as comprehensive yet concise descriptions as possible, organized by my own headers for ease of reading. Page numbers from Arnold’s book are cited. [Additions and slight edits to language by me are in brackets.] Most of this text is copyrighted and thus may not be reproduced without citation.
What Is Craniosacral Therapy?
The term craniosacral refers to the practitioner's focus on the spinal column, the bones of the head or cranium, and the broad ending structure of the spine, the sacrum. Craniosacral [therapy] pays particular attention to the craniosacral rhythm, a slight swelling and contraction of the bones of the head, and a rotation around a central axis by the skeleton on each side of the body.
This regular movement is apparently generated by pressure changes throughout the head and spinal column during the production and absorption of cerebrospinal fluid. The craniosacral rhythm can be palpated throughout the human body at a rate of four to twelve cycles each minute. It offers useful clues to the condition of soft tissue and joints throughout the body, and furnishes a diagram to patterns of pain and discomfort. (xix-xx)
The Structures Protecting our Central Nervous System
Rather than form a single shell, the [skull] is composed of [more than 20 bones], joined by interlocking seams, known as suture joints. Sutures grip tightly yet allow for slight movement. The effect of a suture can be imagined to be like the effect of joining hands by interweaving the fingers, the fingers provide a secure connection where they meet yet allow for movement. (155)
All bones and body parts are encased within a network of fibrous connective tissue called fascia. This varies from very thin, weblike film to many layers of specialized membranes. The most obvious of these is the cutaneous membrane, our outer skin. Internally, these varied protective membranes and connective tissues are called fascias.
A wonderful aspect of the body’s fascia is that the entire network is interconnected and continuous.
The inner lining of the skull and spinal column is called the dura mater [Latin for tough mother]. This dense fibrous connective tissue lines… the bones surrounding the brain and the nerve canal within the spinal column [anchoring at the bottom of the spine inside the sacrum]. This continuous sheath provides the chamber in which the cerebrospinal fluid circulates around the brain and spinal cord, from the top of the head to the end of the spine.
Together, [the skull], the dura mater, and the cerebrospinal fluid provide a [protective, resilient] cushioning and insulating environment for the brain and spinal cord. (xxi) This structure has the capacity to dampen, absorb, and adapt to the changing stresses, jolts, and pressures which comes upward from the torso or are transmitted directly along the spinal column. (155)
Stress, Trauma & Resilience
Yet, the dura mater is itself vulnerable. As with any protective coating, the protective device itself can begin to collect evidence of stress. As a tent may begin to show wrinkles and sags while still protecting its occupants, so the dura mater, or any fascia, begins to show patterns of tightness and flexibility/inflexibility. (xx-xxi)
[Fascia, including] the dura mater, may protectively tighten as a response to stress or trauma [whether experienced directly at the head, or—because all fascia is contiguous and interconnected—distally from other parts of the body]. Then it gives up some of its resilience in order to [protect and hold more tightly]. (156)
Within the human body, it appears that tension and strain patterns in the muscles and fibrous connective tissue are at the base of improper alignment of the bones. Prolonged tightness and inflexibility of the fascia or muscles creates a slight but steady pull on the bones, restricting movement and even shifting the bone from proper alignment. This is experienced as recurrent pain, propensity to repeated injury in the same place, and resistance to simple manipulative treatment.
If a skilled practitioner realigns the bones themselves, relief may be temporary, because the connective tissues [transmit]... forces that gradually [pull] them out of alignment again. Craniosacral practice addresses the connective tissue more explicitly, eventually easing the internal stress and allowing the total system to rediscover a more harmonious alignment. (xxi)
Craniosacral [therapy] is accomplished by careful attention to the rhythmic and energetic manifestations of the body. Gentle touch is applied in harmony with the indications received from the body, on the cranial bones and at [important regions of the body called diaphragms].
Craniosacral therapy originated within a tradition of [osteopathic medicine and] physical manipulation. In some schools, strong pressures are still used for this work. Yet, the body often resists a forceful approach and responds readily to gentle touch. Essentially, this is a very simple therapy, a type of "laying on of hands," emanating from many years of sophisticated observation and experiment, and based on a profound attentiveness to and respect for the processes of the total person. (xxi-xxii)
To speak metaphorically: sensing the supportive presence of the therapist’s hands, these tissues are able to let go their extreme vigilance. Relaxing their level of tension, they begin to unwind and sort through other possibilities. They are searching for a more comfortable level of holding with greater resilience. (156)
The popularity of craniosacral therapy stems from its surprising versatility and effectiveness in treating injury and pain. Joints that have been impaired by injury or disease regain a wide range of motion. Shoulder, neck and lower back pain are greatly eased.
Persons suffering from chronic pain often enjoy relief and a new level of day-to-day functioning.
Frequent pain and injury present a pattern in a persons life. At times of stress, the same knee or hip flares up with pain after a small or unnoticed injury. Treatment often reveals that an original injury was suffered during a period of intense stress, anxiety, or confusion. The tendency to protectively tighten remains in the tissue and is [activated] later under similar stress. This happens because the body tissue has the capacity to “remember” injury, to be prepared to react more readily to similar injury. At that point in the future unfortunately, the primary reaction of tissue to perceived trauma results in inflammation, swelling, stiffness, and inflexibility of the affected area.
The gentle and supportive techniques of Craniosacral treatments, which work with the tissue at the rate it is ready to respond, hold the key to releasing the tissue, memory and the pattern of pain at that location.
Craniosacral therapy is an effective complementary therapy facilitating other forms of treatment. For example, a chiropractic adjustment has often been found to be easier and to last longer after a craniosacral treatment. (xxii-xxiii)
It is used in conjunction with with other therapies that address muscular, fascial, and emotional roots of tension in other ways, including physical therapy/personal training, somatic/psychotherapy, chiropractic, deep tissue/orthopedic massage, acupuncture, pilates and other physical/postural retraining exercises and techniques such as Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and Clinical Somatics.