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  • Writer's pictureMegan Cottrell

Why Does Craniosacral Therapy Treat Such a Wide Range of Issues? Demystifying the Magic

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

is craniosacral therapy modern-day snake oil? why does craniosacral therapy treat so many different kinds of issues?

One of the most common questions I get asked as a craniosacral therapist is, “Does craniosacral treat ___________?” You can fill in that blank with a LOT of things — anxiety, migraines, back pain, TMJ, tongue tie, PTSD, concussion, autism, vertigo and more — and very often I will say, “Yes!”

On one hand, it’s a joy to be able to offer people a new strategy for help. On the other hand, the wide range of conditions that craniosacral can treat often makes me feel like I’m selling snake oil — Good for Whatever Ails You! Cures When Everything Else Fails!

So, in an effort to help people understand WHAT craniosacral therapy treats, I’m going to try to explain some systems that craniosacral therapy addresses and how those individual conditions or symptoms relate to those larger systems. So, buckle your seatbelts — it’s time to take a deep dive into the nervous system!

Note: While we attempt to explain the healing processes of craniosacral therapy, this article is not meant to be a comprehensive list of conditions it treats or a complete explanation of how it works. Craniosacral therapy has components of an intuitive art, so here we are attempting to define what we know but also recognizing there is more that we don’t know yet.

What Body Systems Does Craniosacral Therapy Treat?

We have lots of different systems throughout our body that you probably learned about in middle school science — the digestive system, the circulatory system, the skeletal system, the reproductive system (cue middle school snickers and giggles!) — but arguably none is more important that the nervous system, the system that wires all of it together into a cohesive whole.

The nervous system has two main parts - the Central Nervous System and the Peripheral Nervous System. The central nervous system consists of the brain and the spinal cord, and just like it sounds, is the central command center for the body.

The peripheral nervous system are the parts of the nervous system that connect all the other systems together. It consists of two main parts - the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. Within the autonomic nervous system, we have both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Here’s a short summary of what each of these complex systems does:

  • Somatic Nervous System: deals with motor and sensory information for voluntary movement

  • Autonomic Nervous System: connects the central nervous system to the body’s major organ systems

    • Sympathetic Nervous System: responds to a threat with fight or flight, creating responses in the internal organs like increasing heartbeat, breathing rapidly, firing off adrenaline, etc.

    • Parasympathetic Nervous System: works to conserve energy by reversing the action of the sympathetic nervous system and resolve the threat response

All of these systems are connected together through the central nervous system (CNS). The central nervous system — the brain and the spinal fluid — are protected by cerebrospinal fluid, a clear body fluid that surrounds them. This fluid serves two functions - to protect the CNS by cushioning it against impact, and to wash the CNS and take away waste products.

Craniosacral therapy works directly with the cerebrospinal fluid. The cerebrospinal fluid is continually being pumped through the CNS at a rate of eight to twelve waves per minute. This flow is crucial to our health, removing waste products that may impair our ability to function well. After a serious illness, remnants of viruses or bacteria or white blood cells are often found in the cerebrospinal fluid, and tests for autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis often test the cerebrospinal fluid for proteins that may indicate an improper immune response.

The cerebrospinal fluid is held by three thin layers of tissues called the meninges. Sometimes tension develops within these meninges. It can be from repeated positioning, genetic predisposition, physical trauma and other problems. The flow of the cerebrospinal fluid can also be impacted by tension or torsion within the musculoskeletal system, such as a tight hip that pulls the sacrum and then limits the ripple of the fluid .When a tension point develops, it changes the pressure and flow of the cerebrospinal fluid. It’s like trying to water your garden with a kink in the hose — it just isn’t flowing as it should. This can cause a build up of waste material in the cerebrospinal fluid and brain which then can influence how well all the parts of the nervous system work together.

This article from Harvard Medical school explains the need for the brain to dispose of waste that gathers in the cerebral spinal fluid and how the build up of waste material within it can be both a symptom and cause of disease or malfunction in the body. Healthy choices like exercise and sleep can also aid the body in getting rid of these waste products. Craniosacral therapy supports the system that gets rid of that waste, allowing it to function more normally and, in turn, improving the function of the whole neurological system.

Since our bodies are mostly made of water, an echo of flow and flutter of the cerebral spinal fluid can be felt throughout the body, particularly in paired joints, like the hips, ribs, parts of the head like the temples. A craniosacral therapist feels for that rhythm in those joints and notes when it feels off, indicating that something isn’t flowing as it should. When we find that stutter, we can meet it gently with that light touch. This allows us to bypass the body’s fight or flight response. Once the therapist begins to feel that flow again in the tissues, they follow it, holding and waiting for signs of tissue release, such as heat, therapeutic pulsing and tingling, and then repeat the process in the other direction.

What Are the Conditions that CST Treats and How Are They Related to The Central Nervous System, the Musculoskeletal System and the Cerebrospinal Fluid?

When our nervous system isn’t functioning as it should, there are many potential negative outcomes. Since craniosacral therapy is helping the nervous system to find balance and restore function, and because the nervous system is so big and connected to every system of the body, craniosacral can treat an extremely wide range of issues.

In this next section, we cover the different systems that craniosacral addresses - the central nervous system, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, and the musculoskeletal system - but in reality, these three symptoms are not separate. Each one is a dynamic part of the body that influences each other. So, while receiving craniosacral for a certain problem might primarily influence one system of the body, those impacts ripple out into other systems of the body as well. We are dynamic, complex beings!

Craniosacral Therapy for the Central Nervous System - How CST Can Help Anxiety, Depression, Pregnancy, Newborn Issues, Trauma and PTSD, Headaches, Autism, ADHD and Learning Disabilities

The body’s central nervous system regulates our stress state - whether we're relaxed or experiencing fight/flight/freeze due to stress. That, in turn, regulates the autonomic nervous system - all the ways our body responds automatically to stress, like increasing our heart rate, controlling our breathing, dilating our pupils, etc. Craniosacral therapy works to calm the central nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing us out of fight/flight/freeze, and allowing us to relax, think more clearly and engage in meaningful relationships.

For this reason, craniosacral therapy helps with a lot of disorders related to the central nervous system, including:

  • Anxiety and Depression - taking the body out of stress response, allowing us to think more clearly and engage in meaningful relationships with those around us

  • Pregnancy - balancing the autonomic nervous system (the part of us that regulates our very basic functions) which helps us deal with stress, lower high blood pressure, liver or kidney concerns, nausea or fatigue in pregnancy.

  • Newborn Issues (colic, fussiness, sleep problems, low-interaction) - a baby stuck in fight, flight or freeze has a hard time relaxing, sleeping or engaging with their caregivers. Craniosacral creates a gentle way to calm the baby’s central nervous system, allowing them to come out of this stress state and engage with the world from a more relaxed state.

  • Trauma and PTSD - the bodies of people who have experienced trauma are often locked in a fight/flight/freeze response or have a nervous system that is easily triggered into activating fight or flight. Craniosacral therapy can help their central nervous system begin to release from this state and engage the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing this heightened state.

  • Autism - people on the autism spectrum often find that the world overload’s their senses, putting them into a continuous fight or flight state. Craniosacral can help bring calm to the central nervous system and allow them to experience a relaxed state, which then makes it easier to regulate and interact.

  • ADHD and Learning Disabilities - Similar to craniosacral therapy’s effect on autism, people with ADHD or learning disabilities often experience a stress state due to the way their body and brain perceives the world around them or the pressure and stress they experience from dealing with their struggles. Allowing the nervous system to relax helps them think more clearly, gain focus and feel more positive about their abilities.

Craniosacral Therapy for the Cerebrospinal Fluid - How CST Can Help Headaches and Migraines, Seizures, Vertigo, Tinnitus, Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Mental Fog, Brain Injury, Concussion, ADHD and Learning Disabilities

Scientists are just now discovering the importance of the cerebrospinal fluid as the system that washes the central nervous system and clears waste from the brain. New discoveries are being made about how the presence of certain substances in the cerebrospinal fluid can be an indicator of disease and how impaired waste removal can cause issues within the functioning of the nervous system. Craniosacral helps improve the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid by unlocking points of tension that keep it from doing its job. Once the fluid is able to flow as intended, the body can remove waste products and the central nervous system functions better.

Headaches and Migraines - although there are many causes of headaches and migraines, still many of which are unknown, limitations in the flow of cerebrospinal fluid and waste build up is one main factor. Improving the flow of the cerebral spinal fluid can also help the central nervous system to function better, leading to less tension in the body overall, which also contributes to headaches.

Seizures - improving the cerebrospinal fluid allows the body to remove waste products and improve the function of the central nervous system, which can lower the frequency and duration of seizures for those who experience them. Craniosacral can also reduce systemic stress on the nervous system, leading to fewer seizures.

Vertigo - Vertigo can be a symptom of restrictions within the flow of the body’s cerebrospinal fluid, and can also be caused by compression of the cranial bones or nerves. By releasing that tension, the central nervous system can function more normally, decreasing the sensations of vertigo

Tinnitus - Similar to vertigo, tinnitus can occur when the central nervous system isn’t functioning normally and the brain is overloaded by signals from the body. By addressing any restriction points within the flow of cerebrospinal fluid and releasing compression of cranial bones or nerves, the brain can function more normally, leading to relief from the symptoms of tinnitus

Learning Disabilities - Because the cerebrospinal fluid washes the brain, improving its flow clears the brain of any waste, which helps bring mental clarity and focus

Concussion and Brain Injury - one common biomarker of a concussion or traumatic brain injury is waste build up in the cerebral spinal fluid, showing that the body is not clearing the waste produced by the brain well on its own. Supporting this system by releasing any restrictions can result in significant improvement in symptoms for clients dealing with a brain injury.

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Mental Fog, Long Covid - build up of waste product in the cerebrospinal fluid is a biomarker for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and symptoms of disorientation and brain fog from covid infections and other diseases. By improving the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, those waste products can be released from the body as intended, improving mental clarity and the function of the central nervous system.

Craniosacral Therapy for the Musculoskeletal System - How CST Can Help Jaw Pain, TMJ, Breastfeeding Problems, Tongue Tie, Pregnancy Discomfort, Headaches and Migraines, and Back or Neck Pain

Craniosacral therapy follows the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid throughout the body. By feeling the flutter of the cerebrospinal fluid in paired joints, the therapist can assess where there might be tension that is disrupting the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid and the central nervous system.

Craniosacral seeks to work with the body’s existing healing patterns, unhooking the tension within tissues, starting by working from where the therapist finds the body willing to release tension and continuing in the direction of ease, rather than trying to force the body into the desired pattern. By going the direction of ease, we allow the tissues to unwind themselves and then enable the tissues to go where we were hoping to increase range of motion in the first place. By doing this work in the musculoskeletal system, craniosacral therapy then supports better flow of the cerebrospinal fluid as well as the function of the central nervous system. Some issues that can be addressed include:

Jaw Pain and TMJ - TMJ and jaw pain often come from underlying tension patterns that have been built for years and are symptoms of the body trying to protect itself from trauma. By working in the direction of ease, we can try to unwind these tension patterns without provoking a stress response from the body, which leads to more tension.

Breastfeeding Problems - breastfeeding troubles like a poor latch, lack of weight gain, taking a long time to feed, fussiness on the breast, feeding poorly on one side, etc., can often have roots in underlying tension in the baby’s body. By resolving these tension points, we can improve the baby’s comfort and ability to nurse, making nursing faster, easier and more productive.

Tongue Tie - our practice treats a lot of babies with tongue tie, so we have a whole online course about the origins of tongue tie as body tension and how craniosacral therapy can help. By relieving the overly tight midline tension, including the tongue tissue, we can help babies feed more efficiently and avoid further problems.

Pregnancy Discomfort and Supporting More Effective Labor - Craniosacral during pregnancy gently releases tension, which invites the body to be in alignment, enabling optimal fetal positioning and alleviating painful pregnancy complications such as migraines, severe pubic pain, low back pain and sciatic pain.

Tension Headaches - by relieving tension in the body, we can help the body unwind its current tension patterns, leading to fewer and less intense headaches.

Back or Neck Pain - an alternative to massage and chiropractic for pain in the body, craniosacral can be especially beneficial because of its gentleness and approach of working in the direction of ease, rather than trying to force the body into the right position or way of working. My clients have experienced reduction in pain intensity, frequency and increased range of motion and abilities through receiving craniosacral therapies.

So, we hope this rather long explanation has given you insight into both the dynamic and complex nature of the body, but also the ways that craniosacral therapy can improve many different kinds of symptoms we experience when different parts of the nervous system are impaired. Inspired by the potential of craniosacral therapy to help you? Book an appointment with us today. We can’t wait to see you in our office!


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