What Does Craniosacral Therapy Do? Does Craniosacral Really Work?
Updated: Mar 31
Is craniosacral therapy legitimate? For new clients, one of their main questions about craniosacral therapy is if it really works. Many people may have never heard of craniosacral therapy before, or confuse it with other alternative therapies such as energy work, reiki, massage or acupressure.
A quick google search will bring up several short articles that claim to “debunk” craniosacral therapy as pseudoscience, although reading these articles often reveals that the authors have little knowledge or experience with CST. If you’re wondering if you’ll really see results with craniosacral therapy, you’re not alone, and we’re here to answer your question. Read through this article to learn the research and evidence that supports craniosacral therapy and the real experiences of people from our center who have experienced its power.
Kelly's Story: Craniosacral Therapy Creates a Path To Deep Healing
Before we get into how craniosacral works or what it can do, we want to share how the Craniosacral Center of Grand Rapids came to be. Our founder and lead therapist, Kelly O’Brien Pahman, shares how craniosacral therapy changed her life and helped her deal with significant health challenges.
For over a decade, Kelly found herself struggling with a series of health challenges. A routine flu shot triggered Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that causes muscle weakness and paralysis. Kelly was unable to work, unable even to walk to the bathroom or around the block. The situation was so dire that Kelly struggled to go to school or work - her body simply couldn’t keep up with those kinds of demands. Slowly, she began to recover her strength and ability to walk and move, but she still lived with chronic pain and fatigue, despite numerous therapies and treatments. This experience enabled Kelly to have deeper empathy for clients in chronic pain or with limited abilities.
In 2008, Kelly was the victim of a carjacking, leaving her with a traumatic brain injury. Although she received intensive medical treatments such as speech and occupational therapy, Kelly struggled to function and cope with everyday life. Soon after, as a result of her brain injury, she contracted viral meningitis, leaving her with intense, debilitating pain every single day. When a friend suggested she try craniosacral therapy, she found it to be a respite from the painful and stressful world of her brain injury. Craniosacral helped her get in touch with how her body was feeling, relaxing her over-worked and frazzled nervous system, to find a place of calm.
After struggling with pain and fatigue, craniosacral began to really improve Kelly’s health. She had more energy and less pain. She felt sharper and more capable. She was grateful for this vast improvement in her health.
Always having been interested in pregnancy and birth, Kelly became a holistic doula soon after this. She loved supporting women through the childbearing year. But again, CST made an appearance in her life. She noticed that clients who were in better alignment had shorter, easier labors, and that craniosacral was one tool that helped her clients find that alignment within their bodies. With her own success with craniosacral and her client’s success, Kelly made the decision to train at the Upledger Institute to become a craniosacral therapist. Seeing the power of CST to help her clients, from newborn babies to adults who have struggled with decades of chronic pain, is what fuels her to continue providing this unique therapy and expand her practice.
We share this story not because it proves that craniosacral therapy works for every condition or that it will work for you, but because we want you to know that the origin of our center comes from our direct experience with the power of craniosacral therapy. Throughout this article, we’ll be sharing the experiences of our clients and their results through craniosacral therapy.
What Is Craniosacral Therapy?
Craniosacral therapy, or CST, is a light-touch therapy that helps release restrictions throughout the body, which improves the function of the central nervous system. Developed by osteopathic physician and professor of biomechanics Dr. John Upledger, craniosacral therapy uses light touch, approximately 5 grams of pressure, to evaluate the function of the cerebral spinal fluid and release restrictions found in the body that can impact the flow of cerebral spinal fluid and the nervous system as a whole. When the body’s cerebral spinal fluid can flow without restriction, the nervous system can function optimally, restoring the body’s ability to heal itself.
Craniosacral therapy has helped me and members of my family with tension and working through current and past injuries. Most massage or other kinds of body work were too aggressive for me. I always felt pain during or after massages and my tension was usually worse. When I go into a session with Kelly, she listens to me about where I’m feeling tension but the amazing thing is that she truly listens and feels where I need help in my body. I always found it hard to explain what CST is and just urged family to go experience it for themselves and both my sister and mother have had wonderful experiences as well. CST has helped me feel more relaxed, more aligned, and typically even taller! I can feel my body release what I have been holding and I’m so grateful for the Craniosacral Center of Grand Rapids.
Katie Vriesman, client
Is There Research to Show Craniosacral Therapy Works? Is r
There are research studies that confirm the benefits of craniosacral therapy, although they are limited. Like many alternative therapies, craniosacral has not been widely studied by the medical community. Because of this, research studies are often smaller or individual case studies.
In addition, a hands-on therapy like craniosacral therapy is often difficult to perform in a traditional double-blind trial. It’s easy to disguise a placebo pill to look real. It’s much harder to perform a physical therapy that seems real to the patient, but is not actual craniosacral therapy.
However, most of these evidence-based studies on craniosacral therapy do show significant benefits for patients who receive craniosacral therapy, including:
This study which shows a significant reduction of pain level for patients with chronic pain who received craniosacral therapy vs. a sham touch therapy
Another study which showed the impact of craniosacral therapy on 11 retired football players with post-concussion syndrome. With 10 sessions of craniosacral therapy, the patients saw reduced pain, increased brain function and better sleep
A study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science shows that touch therapy very similar to CST significantly improved range of motion and neck rotation for babies with torticollis after 8 weeks of treatment, with benefits continuing even four months after treatment stopped
If you search terms such as “craniosacral therapy effectiveness” or “does craniosacral really work,” you’ll come up with a handful of articles claiming to “debunk” craniosacral therapy or calling it a sham practice. Their main argument is the lack of large-scale research proving that it works. However, there's a vast difference between saying, “We’ve done the research and proved that this doesn’t work,” and “There hasn’t been enough research done to show that this doesn’t work.”
The other claim that these articles make is that, according to the scientific understanding of the cranium and nervous system, craniosacral therapy can’t work how it claims to. Science, however, is constantly changing our understanding of how something as complex as the human body works, particularly the nervous system. Even a decade ago, medical providers scoffed at the idea that something like breathing or meditation could provide relief for conditions like anxiety and depression. Now, they’re widely recommended by the medical establishment as safe, effective treatments for many conditions.
For decades, medical practitioners declared that acupuncture could not work because the method it claimed to employ was not biologically possible according to their understanding of how the human body functioned. Despite centuries of use by traditional cultures and the positive experiences of many, it took years before large trials would be done with acupuncture, proving that it does provide therapeutic benefit to patients. Doctors still claim that it shouldn’t work, but also reluctantly admit that it does, indeed, seem to provide relief and healing for many people.
Science is just now beginning to uncover the role of cerebrospinal fluid in the health of the neurological system. New research is emerging, helping us understand how cerebrospinal fluid influences brain development and function. Scientists and researchers are beginning to realize that our model of the brain as the mastermind of our body isn’t entirely accurate, and the entire nervous system functions as a holistic unit. The U.S. Army is currently working to create a device that would help increase the flow of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain, washing and refreshing the nervous system. Even the renowned Cleveland Clinic recognizes the value and therapeutic benefits of craniosacral therapy.
Hopefully, studies on the effectiveness of craniosacral therapy will continue so that we can demonstrate the life changing effects of craniosacral therapy that we have seen in our practice. We hope to one day be able to contribute data to such studies and show the effectiveness that we’ve seen firsthand. Craniosacral is also recommended by many other medical professionals who have seen its value for their clients. Our practice works directly with dentists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, international board certified lactation consultants, naturopaths and more who have the impact of craniosacral in their own practice.
“I began seeing Kelly for CST early in 2015. I had been having neck and low back pain that I wasn't able to find much relief from with other treatments. I was so delightfully surprised after my first session with Kelly and I could move my neck more than I had in years with a huge decrease in my shoulder tension. I also find that I feel more balanced emotionally with an increased sense of wellness after CST visits. For clients who want some hard data, Kelly was able to make me roughly 1 inch taller after a series of visits when I first started. That is some serious spinal decompression in a super gentle manner. At my most current visit we measured the range of motion in my neck before and after the treatment. I gained 30°!!”
Reagan Gielincki, OT, IBCLC
What Conditions Can Craniosacral Therapy Treat? What Benefits Can You Expect from Craniosacral Therapy?
Because craniosacral therapy is a holistic treatment - focused on improving the ability of the body to heal itself - it can treat a wide range of issues. Here we share many of the conditions that our clients come in seeking help for, along with their testimonials of the changes they’ve seen in their health and wellness.
Craniosacral for Pain and Fatigue: Chronic pain and fatigue, including neck, back and joint pain, headaches and migraines, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, sciatica and mobility issues all benefit from craniosacral therapy.
“I have struggled for many years with head, neck, and lower back pain. For the 3 months before starting to see Kelly, I had also been struggling with crackling in my ear, and a frequent earache. All of these have improved by at LEAST 75%, and the ear crackling and pain is almost completely gone.”
Abby Dood, client
“I sought Kelly’s care because my nervous system was heightened during an extreme flare-up of pelvic arthritis. Each time I left her office, I was more confident, peaceful, and had less inflammation. Highly recommend this form of therapy!”
Mary Jo Thayer, client
“I had chronic hip pain that made it difficult to walk. I had planned an upcoming cruise with my husband to celebrate our retirement, but I thought it would be our last vacation together because it was so painful for me to walk. After seeing Kelly for several weeks, my pain got so much better. I was able to go on our cruise and enjoy it! It was awesome. I didn't have any pain until I hit 10,000 steps, and one day, I did 21 flights of stairs!"
Cindy DeYoung, client
Craniosacral for Newborns, Infants and Children. One of our specialties at the Craniosacral Center of Grand Rapids is working with infants and young children, particularly for tongue tie and oral restrictions. We are an internationally-sought out provider in this area of work and working to increase awareness and treatment, not only for families, but for other care providers who serve them.
We seen dramatic results in newborn babies, infants and children. We love working with these young patients and seeing what amazing effects the results have on their whole families! Families come to us for tongue and lip ties(link to article), breastfeeding concerns, colic, plagiocephaly, torticollis, Autism, ADD and ADHD, and birth injuries, among other concerns.
"During her first session, within the first 15 minutes her face washed over with complete relaxation. With vision therapy and CST, we've seen a reduction in sleep anxiety, worry questions, eye pain, headaches and belly aches. Craniosacral is helping her integrate the work that vision therapy is accomplishing in her brain. Our kids are asked to do so much of this work actively. Their eyes are always working! So this therapy is a gift. They get to lay, sit, color or whatever while a therapist facilitates calm for them. Then they learn how calm feels and how to be more aware of the sensations they feel. It's so valuable!
Alissa Frutos, client
”My son, Domanick, had a pretty severe lip and tongue tie, and he had a pretty traumatic birth, thus making it difficult for him to latch, even onto a bottle. He couldn’t turn his head to the left very far, and couldn’t pick his head up when on his tummy. We had countless days where he would cry non-stop, and I felt as if there was nothing I could do to calm him.
After one visit with Kelly, Dom could turn his head with full mobility and could pick his head up a bit more during tummy time. Her lip and tongue tie course is so helpful, and I learned so much! It is definitely a great tool to have in this season! We just finished our sixth visit, and he is a completely new baby! Kelly was amazing in every aspect. From the great conversations, to being so gentle and nurturing to Dom. I can not say enough good things about her and will be recommending her to everyone I know! "
Autie Vernon, client
“Kelly helped my son who had torticollis and was told he needed a helmet, but she helped reverse it by loosening those muscles and he never needed one!”
Elizabeth Hoezee, client
“My daughter would scream for hours and sleep for maybe an hour at a time. After a few visits with Kelly she was an entirely different baby. She now sleeps 5-6 hours at a time and no longer has screaming fits.”
Calein O’Brien, client
“Kelly has gone above and beyond with caring for my infant daughter before and after her tie releases. Thanks to Kelly, my baby has gone from waking up hourly at night to waking up once a night consistently in about a month's time!”
Sarah Duke, client
“My son had a tongue, lip, and double cheek tie at 4 weeks old. It was a really traumatic experience for him when we got the revision and kind of sent his nervous system off the rails. He cried for days straight and we saw no end in sight. Our dentist's office had Kelly listed as a reference to potentially help with relieving some tension in his head and neck due to the ties. We saw her 5 days post-op and immediately started to notice a difference in our little man, he was less miserable after every visit. Kelly was so great and worked with our busy schedule - and had so many other suggestions for getting our boy helped out and happy. He’s almost 4 months now and you’d never guess he was such an unhappy baby only a few short months ago.”
Laura DeHaan, client
"I brought my infant son in to see Kelly for tongue tie. When Kelly works on him, he is calm, relaxed, and I can see the releases happening in his body. His shoulders are no longer by his ears when he’s nursing and we are both much less stressed when nursing. I am truly grateful for Kelly’s knowledge about tongue tie and her Tongue Tie Tool Kit and video lessons and discussions are so helpful for parents struggling with this issue. I hope people can experience the gift of CST and the kind care that Kelly provides. Every time I see someone leave her office they are feeling thankful and it’s a beautiful thing to see."
Katie Vriesman, client
We hope that sharing this information with you and the experiences of ourselves and our clients helps you to better understand craniosacral therapy and the evidence-based benefits that it provides. As we continue to grow, we'll keep this article updated with more research, articles and testimonials from our clients.
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