Craniosacral therapy

Written by Becky Banham

Becky Banham

Therapy Directory Content Team

Last updated August 2022 | Next review due January 2024

Craniosacral therapy is a treatment that involves the therapist making light contact with your body to check your craniosacral system. They do this to sense the movement and rhythm of the cerebrospinal fluid, in order to identify restrictions that could be causing dysfunction within the body. On this page, we'll explore craniosacral therapy in more detail, including what to expect from a session and what it feels like.

What is craniosacral therapy?

The human body is able to function as a result of numerous complex systems that are part of our make up. The system that is relevant to craniosacral therapy is aptly named the 'craniosacral system' and it is composed primarily of membranes and cerebrospinal fluid, whose job it is to surround and cushion the brain and the spinal cord.

During a craniosacral therapy session, your therapist will tune into this system by placing their hands on specific body points allowing them to then evaluate and enhance its functioning by using very light touches to the body.

The aim is that your practitioner works with the spine, the skull and its cranial structures and fascia in order to ease the restrictions of the nerve passages and stimulate the movement of cerebrospinal fluid through the spinal cord.

Because the therapy is so gentle and non-invasive it is suitable for babies, children and the elderly and is also perfectly safe for pregnant women or acute pain sufferers. It has been successfully used to treat a wide range of conditions ranging from physical issues such as head injuries and internal bleeding right through to psychological problems such as stress and insomnia. Because treatment fundamentally boosts the body's natural healing process, it is also commonly used as a preventative health care measure to develop well-being and vitality.

Professionals who offer craniosacral therapy

History of craniosacral therapy

During the early 1900s American osteopath Dr William Sutherland discovered intrinsic movements of the bones in the head. Further observations revealed a variety of different rhythms which along with the intrinsic movements, Sutherland considered to be a direct expression of health which offered a way of working with the physical as well as the more subtle aspects of life.

Additional studies drew a link between the movements and mental and emotional health, showing that if movement was restricted our natural capacity to self heal was reduced. Similarly, a limitation or absence of the movements implies a reduction in the expression of health which could lead to disease. Sutherland discovered that by using his hands to find the areas of restricted movements he could facilitate changes and re-establish normal movement.

Craniosacral therapy is a slightly different process, developed around 30 years ago by Dr John E Upledger who initially practised in cranial osteopathy. After making observations during his career as an osteopathic physician Upledger developed a similar process, now known as craniosacral therapy.

Whereas cranial osteopathy focuses on the rhythm in the cranial bones and the manipulation of these bones to restore the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, craniosacral therapists believe the rhythms originate in the membranes that encase the brain and the spinal chord and instead focus on locating these imbalances before using their hands to gently apply pressure to certain areas of the body in order to improve the fluid circulation.

What does treatment involve?

The initial consultation

Before treatment commences you can expect to have an initial consultation which could include a medical assessment of fairly standard procedures such as feeling your pulse and taking you blood pressure. This is an opportunity for you and your therapist to discuss your medical history, day-to-day routine, diet, exercise and just generally what is happening in your life. The more you tell them the better and more accurate their diagnosis will be.

As well as all of the above, they will also be keeping a close eye on your posture and how you move your body, possibly asking you to make movements so they can make a note of what hurts, where and when. By doing this they will be able to establish areas of sensitivity and identify what is going on.

What to wear

For your session it is recommended that you wear loose, comfortable clothing and always remain fully clothed. You will usually be required to lie on a massage table whilst your therapist stands or sits.

What to expect in a session

To begin, your therapist will make contact by lightly placing their hands on your body allowing them to tune into what is happening by listening with their hands. They will check all parts of the craniosacral system, sensing the movement and rhythm of the cerebrospinal fluid in order to identify restrictions that could be causing dysfunction within the body.

Once your therapist has made their assessment they will then be able to alleviate any restrictions by gently manipulating the cerebrospinal fluid and membranes by applying pressure with their hands. The amount of pressure needed to restore the flow of fluid and allow the body to correct itself is very small and usually does not cause any pain. However, should you be in any discomfort, your therapist will want you to alert them.

What does it actually feel like?

Due to the gentle and non invasive nature of craniosacral therapy most people find sessions highly pleasant and relaxing, often leaving individuals feeling revitalised. Certain movements might cause tingling or numbing sensations or very slight discomfort. These sensations are usually only momentary and once settled will leave you feeling better.

Post-treatment reaction

Reaction to treatment varies a great deal from person to person but generally people find they leave the session feeling deeply relaxed and, or with an increase in energy. Pain reduction or an increase in function may happen immediately after the session or it could take a few days to develop.

How many sessions will I need?

This depends entirely on what you are being treated for. Minor injuries could reap the benefits from two to six sessions, whereas a longer standing more severe injury or disease will take longer to treat. This is something which you can discuss with your therapist in your initial consultation.

How much will it cost?

Cost usually varies from therapist to therapist, with certain geographical locations costing slightly more than others. Some therapists choose to charge more for the first session as it can sometimes last longer and some therapists will offer reduced rates for concessions or those on a low income.

Benefits of craniosacral therapy

Craniosacral therapy is most commonly sought by individuals with acute or chronic conditions, though successful treatment has been reported for a huge range of additional problems. 

Post-treatment, some patients also report feeling a greater sense of relaxation in their everyday lives as well as an improved sense of overall well-being.


Craniosacral therapy and cranial osteopathy are the same

Though there is a large amount of overlap between the two professions, they are not the same. Cranial osteopathy is a specialist area of osteopathy that concentrates on the minute movements of the cranial bones . These bones in the head are surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid that protects the brain, surrounding tissues and the spinal cord. In a healthy craniosacral system this fluid will pulsate at a rate of six to 15 times a minute. Practitioners are trained to monitor this rhythm in order to detect any imbalances, after which they manipulate the bones of the head and the face to improve circulation of the fluid.

Though craniosacral therapy was developed from cranial osteopathy and is based upon many of the same principles, the process focusses on the membranes that encase the brain and the spinal chord, believing that it is they who generate the cranial rhythm. Once the practitioner has located imbalances they will then use their hands to gently apply pressure to certain areas of the body in order to improve the fluid circulation.

Cranial osteopaths will have trained initially in osteopathy and will then follow up with a postgraduate training in cranial work. Craniosacral therapist's study cranial work exclusively and will have trained in that specific area for around two years.

What training does a craniosacral therapist need?

Craniosacral therapists are not regulated in the UK, this means that there are currently no laws with regards to what kind of training someone must have in order to call themselves a craniosacral therapist.

When searching for a practitioner it is always reassuring to know that they are qualified to a high level and working to good standards and this is why a number of professional associations have established themselves and taken on a role of self-regulation.

In order to register and become accredited with a professional association, the craniosacral therapist must meet the requirements set by the organisation as well as agreeing to comply with their code of ethics and complaints procedure.

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