Does Craniosacral Therapy Work?
Craniosacral Therapy (CST) is a hands-on method utilizing soft touch to manipulate the skull or joints in the head, pelvic parts, and spine to treat disease. It examines membrane and fluid movement in the central nervous system. Relieving tension promotes health by eliminating pain and enhancing health and immunity.
CST therapy is an alternative therapy commonly used by osteopaths, chiropractors, and massage therapists to relieve various symptoms, including headaches, neck pain, and side effects of cancer treatment.
What is Craniosacral Therapy (CST)?
CST is designed to improve the body’s ability to heal. It was introduced in the 1970s by Dr. John Upledger as a form of cranial osteopathy. CST uses less than 5 grams of touch to “address the limitations of the craniosacral system, thereby improving central nervous system function.” Touch can affect the pressure and circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. This process is thought to reduce pain and dysfunction.
The idea of CST is that the body is interconnected at every level. It is believed to increase the efficiency of biological processes by promoting intrinsic self-regulation, self-correction, and self-healing. This therapy can be used successfully in children and adults. Practitioners claim that CST can be administered as a stand-alone or in combination with medical or other alternative treatments.
What does CST treat?
CST focuses on gently placing the hand to help relax the connective tissue or “fascia” of the body. Fascia (Latin for “band”) is the covering that covers the entire body, including organs, glands, nerves, muscles, blood vessels, brain, and spinal cord. The sheath forms connective tissue throughout the body. CST can help treat a variety of health problems, including:
- Chronic pain
- Complex regional pain syndrome
- Fascial adhesions
- Migraine headache
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Neurodegenerative diseases
- Temporo-mandibular joint syndrome (TMJ)
- Post-concussion syndrome
A CST session is like massage therapy, except you get dressed. The therapy session begins with a consultation with your trained therapist to identify problem areas. Soft music and dim lights can raise your level of relaxation. A therapist can use light pressure techniques to assess your fascial system for possible disruptions and limitations. Light touch and fascial relaxation can help your muscles and organs naturally release stress, which improves function. Other patients often report a feeling of deep relaxation.
- Arnold-Chiari malformation
- Blood clots
- Brain aneurysm
- Concussion symptoms
- Cerebral swelling
- Traumatic brain injury
What are the Risks and Benefits of CST?
Research shows that craniosacral therapy can be effective when combined with conventional treatment. For example, people with asthma may benefit from continued use of inhalers and medication. Craniosacral therapy can help improve nervous system function, reduce pain, and improve mobility.
CST has been proven effective in the treatment of physical and mental illnesses. The following conditions are suitable for treatment with CST:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- back pain
- brain injury
- central nervous system disorders
- chronic fatigue
- immune disorders
- learning disabilities
- neck pain
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- spinal cord injury
To treat disease, CST uses soft touch to manipulate the joints in the cranium or skull, parts of the pelvis, and the spine. It examines membranes and the movement of fluids in and around the central nervous system. Relieving tension in the central nervous system promotes well-being by eliminating pain and boosting health and immunity.
CST therapy is an alternative treatment typically used by osteopaths, chiropractors, and massage therapists. It may relieve various symptoms, including headaches, neck pain, and side effects of cancer treatment, among many others.
Is Craniosacral Therapy Effective?
There are few studies on the use of CST to treat disease. The investigations conducted are discussed below. Research shows that craniosacral therapy can be effective when combined with conventional treatment. For example, people with asthma may benefit from continued use of inhalers and medication.
The following studies demonstrate the benefits of CST in certain situations:
- In 2010, one study examined the effects of CST in people with fibromyalgia. A total of 92 people with the disease received CST or placebo for 20 weeks. The results showed that people who received CST experienced an improvement in mid-term pain.
- Another study on CST and fibromyalgia showed that the therapy could reduce anxiety and improve the quality of life of those affected.
- A study of the effects of acupuncture and CST on adults with asthma reported the potential benefits of both treatments when combined with conventional asthma treatment. However, the combination of CST and acupuncture did not show an advantage over either therapy alone.
According to a 2009 study, CST can improve quality of life and the ability to empty the bladder in MS patients with lower urinary tract symptoms.
Overall, reports aimed at summarizing and commenting on existing research found that the benefits of CST could not be demonstrated. They argue that studies showing beneficial effects are flawed. These include:
- An earlier review published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine in 1999 noted that existing research on CST was “poor” and “inadequate” to support its use of CST. The reviewers also highlighted a study that reported the adverse effects of CST in patients with traumatic brain injury.
- A recent review in 2011 looked at eight studies conducted on CST. The reviewers stated that the available evidence was insufficient to conclude the effectiveness of CST.
- The study, published in Alternative and Complementary Medicine in Focus, examined six randomized controlled trials. The report highlights that five of the six studies may have been biased, while the sixth study did not produce results demonstrating the effectiveness of CST.
- A 2006 paper published in Chiropractic and Manual Therapies suggested that CST should no longer be taught in orthopedic schools until there is evidence that CST works, and people should seek other options.
Additionally, CST is not a reliable diagnostic method, with some researchers claiming its ability to diagnose the disease is “nearly zero.”
Manipulating the skull to affect the cerebrospinal fluid is controversial and has not even been proven in animal models. Other studies have shown that breathing, rather than gently touching the skull, can cause cerebrospinal fluid to circulate.
Several systematic reviews indicate that research on CST is limited and of low quality. However, the potential for harm is small, and some people may benefit from CST, especially in reducing stress and anxiety. According to the University of Minnesota, CST can help individuals by encouraging a change in attitudes toward health and well-being.
In 2006, a Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy article advised CST practitioners that it is their responsibility to be honest with clients about what CST can and cannot do, based on validated research.
Practitioners should never use CST on an individual in place of proven medication or other therapy.