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Craniosacral therapy

No one can deny that craniosacral therapy is relaxing. But, then again, so is a nap, and a nap is cheaper.

Does Craniosacral Therapy Work?

Craniosacral therapists make big promises, but their methods have failed to pass every fair scientific test of efficacy or plausibility

updated (first published 2008)
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

Craniosacral therapy (CST) involves light holding of the skull and sacrum and barely detectable movements. Indeed, the action of craniosacral therapy is so gentle and slight that it is the best example of the so-called “subtle” therapies, which claim to achieve profound health benefits with minor and safe interventions. Practitioners believe that the tiny manipulations of CST influence the pressure and circulatory rhythm of cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that surrounds and cushions the brain and spinal cord.

The modern founder of CST, John Upledger, an osteopath,1 is one of the most famous personalities in complementary and alternative medicine. He built on much older ideas.2 Mr. Upledger says that CST “works with natural and unique rhythms of our different body systems to pinpoint and correct source problems.”

Spelling note: it’s not “cranial sacral therapy,” but a portmanteau: cranial+sacral=craniosacral.3

Does craniosacral therapy work as advertised?

Skeptics have always had many concerns about craniosacral therapy (here’s an excellent CST reading list from EBM-First.com). I have some concerns about it too. I guess I’m a skeptic:

  1. There is good, recent scientific evidence that the most important and basic assumption about how CST works is not true — research has (once again) shown that craniosacral therapists cannot actually move the bones of the skull enough to affect the pressure or circulation of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal column.4 And although CST fluid circulates, we know that it’s pumped almost entirely by respiration5 — not skull movement.
  2. There is also a logical problem: the cranial bones do not move to relieve the pressure of dangerous swelling in the cranium, so they are probably not going to move for therapist’s fingers either.6
  3. There is both old and recent evidence that CST therapists produce conflicting diagnoses of the same patients.78 That is, when asked to assess a patient, CST therapists came to mutually exclusive conclusions.
  4. Any effect that CST has on people must be a complex and subtle one, since it cannot be measured. Subtle effects of therapy certainly exist — just because it can’t be measured doesn’t mean it isn’t there. However, it seems unlikely that any therapist is wise and knowing enough to reliably produce a therapeutic effect by leveraging a phenomenon so subtle that it can’t be measured. There just aren’t any good quality studies showing that CST does anything to CSF circulation or helps patients. The closest is probably a 2015 study comparing CST to light touch for neck pain: it claimed to find evidence of a modest benefit, but it was quite flawed and probably got it wrong.9

Despite more than 50 years of investigation & the promotion of CST by some practitioners, there remains a void in credible evidence supporting the ability of these techniques to alter the movement of the cranial sutures or improve patient-centered outcomes. … The time is past due for advocates of CST to contribute well-designed studies evaluating the efficacy of these techniques to the peer-reviewed literature. The challenge is clear: prove that it works, or move on.

Flynn et al, “Craniosacral therapy and professional responsibility,” Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 2006

At least it’s relaxing!

I have experienced CST, and I can attest that it is truly, deeply relaxing and comforting to have your head held for a long time by a craniosacral therapist with the best intentions to provide a soothing experience. Receiving craniosacral therapy is one of the most relaxing experiences I have ever had on any massage table. That said, those experiences were not much different from any other soothing massage or even just a good nap. I have been just as relaxed on my couch with my cat in my lap.

Also on the bright side, I have no doubt at all that there are many great emotional and psychological benefits to the touch therapy involved. And I am even happy to admit that there may be some “interesting” neurological effects, some of which may even be therapeutic — and which are probably not medically harmful. It is, after all, a gentle therapy.

Despite my own professional expertise, I do not begin to have the power to micro-manage such subtle and “interesting” neurological effects … assuming they exist at all. This is a simple matter of humility. Anyone who has studied physiology and neurology honestly must admit to profound ignorance. No one knows how that system really works. There are just too many blank areas on the map.

Yet, craniosacral therapists claim to “know” what is going on well enough to reliably produce a therapeutic effect. They believe that they have that power … and they believe it enough to charge patients for the service.

What do other osteopaths think?

Even Complementary Therapies in Medicine — a journal that is much friendlier to alternative therapies than mainstream scientific journals — published a review of the available research in 1999 and “found insufficient evidence to support craniosacral therapy.”10 Wouldn’t you expect such a journal to say just the opposite?

There hasn’t been any research supporting CST since then.

In 2006, craniosacral therapy was strongly questioned in yet another journal that you might expect to be friendlier to an alternative therapy, Chiropractic & Manual Therapies.11 Dr. Steve Hartman, a professor of anatomy at a college of osteopathic medicine, writes with much greater authority on this subject than I have:

Craniosacral therapy lacks a biologically plausible mechanism, shows no diagnostic reliability, and offers little hope that any direct clinical effect will ever be shown. In spite of almost uniformly negative research findings, “cranial” methods remain popular with many practitioners and patients.

Until outcome studies show that these techniques produce a direct and positive clinical effect, they should be dropped from all academic curricula; insurance companies should stop paying for them; and patients should invest their time, money, and health elsewhere.

As a scientist in this age of evidence-based practice, I have grown frustrated in my dealings with the “cranial” faithful. As a group, evidence carries little weight with them.

Hartman, “Cranial osteopathy: its fate seems clear,” Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, 2006

Should patients buy craniosacral therapy?

Unproven therapies should never be sold to patients without acknowledging the uncertainties — it’s not ethical.12 More importantly, there’s a risk of harm: not from the therapy, but from belief in a non-existent pathology.13

I can imagine a health care professional who sells CST but strictly limits her therapeutic predictions and is conspicuously humble. Such a therapist might integrate CST as one component of treatment, a relaxing touch therapy, hoping but not really believing or trusting that it might also have some other subtle benefits. This would have to be extremely clear to the patient.

That would be a responsible use of CST — presented with a grain of salt, and offered as just one component of therapy, not the centerpiece.

How many CST therapists actually practice in this way? In my experience, CST practitioners like this are quite rare. It’s more likely that anyone who practices craniosacral therapy is a “true believer” — ideologically committed to the modality, unaware of the substantial scientific evidence that CST is ineffective (and not interested in it either), and quite likely to integrate other dubious methods into treatment (especially “energy” medicine, like therapeutic touch/Reiki).

Summary

Craniosacral therapy (CST) — founded by an osteopath, John Upledger — is usually practiced by osteopaths, chiropractors and massage therapists. CST is a “subtle” therapy that involves light holding of the skull and sacrum with almost imperceptible movements. The idea is that such manipulations affect the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid and have profound therapeutic effects and are “good for” just about anything that ails you. Scientific research has shown that it is not possible to affect the pressure or circulatory rhythm of cerebrospinal fluid, and that CST therapists routinely come to different diagnostic conclusions when assessing the same patient. Even Complementary Therapies in Medicine “found insufficient evidence to support CST,” and Dr. Steve Hartman, as an osteopathic physician himself, harshly criticizes CST: “Craniosacral therapy lacks a biologically plausible mechanism, shows no diagnostic reliability, and offers little hope that any direct clinical effect will ever be shown … patients should invest their time, money, and health elsewhere.” Virtually the only thing CST is good for is that it is a relaxing touch therapy, but of course it is possible to provide relaxing touch to patients without the grandiose claims of exotic therapeutic effectivenes.

The good

The bad

The ugly


About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.

What’s new in this article?

Added summary and good/bad/ugly points. Added a good new related reading link, and quoted from it a bit.

Many unlogged updates.

Related Reading

Notes

  1. Osteopaths are a strange hybrid profession, sort of like a cross between a doctor and a chiropractor and a physiotherapist. Generally speaking, osteopathy has modernized and become a part of scientific medicine. However, there are prominent exceptions, like Dr. Upledger, who defend beliefs that are questioned by other osteopaths. BACK TO TEXT
  2. CST can traces its roots back to 18th century philosopher and scientist Emanuel Swedenbourg (1688–1772), who was well ahead of his time, but also made many mistakes of course (this was very early in the history of medical science). In particular, he was aware of the phenomenon of the pulsation of the brain. Much later, American osteopath William Sutherland (1873-1954) took this further, and proposed many of the specific features of modern CST, particularly the notion that the dura mater is anchored to both cranium and sacrum and can transmit ofrces between the two — hence we have “craniosacral” therapy. Upledger’s primary contribution was a refinement to this: in contrast to Sutherland, he suggested that cerebrospinal fluid pressure fluctuates with a cycle of production and resorption. BACK TO TEXT
  3. Which, incidentally, is great marketing: portmanteaus of anatomical terminology co-opt the dignity of Latin. They sound formal and serious. But there’s no good reason outside of this treatment concept to blend the terms “cranial” and “sacral” — they have no other relationship in biology or medical science. There is no “craniosacral system” according to anyone but craniosacral therapists. The terms simply refer to the top and bottom of the central nervous system: head-to-tail therapy, in other words. BACK TO TEXT
  4. Downey PA, Barbano T, Kapur-Wadhwa R, et al. Craniosacral therapy: the effects of cranial manipulation on intracranial pressure and cranial bone movement. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2006 Nov;36(11):845–53. PubMed #17154138.

    This is a study of the effect of craniosacral therapy on rabbit skulls and their cerebrospinal fluid circulation. The researchers found that “low loads of force, similar to those used clinically when performing a craniosacral frontal lift technique, resulted in no significant changes in coronal suture movement or intracranial pressure in rabbits.”

    If you can’t move rabbit skull bones or change their intracranial pressure, it’s safe to assume that you probably can’t do it to humans either — and without that mechanism in good working order, craniosacral therapy has no basis at all. The researchers concluded: “These results suggest that a different biological basis for craniosacral therapy should be explored.” But, of course, a “different biological basis” for craniosacral therapy has never even been suggested, let alone tested.

    BACK TO TEXT
  5. Dreha-Kulaczewski S, Joseph AA, Merboldt KD, et al. Inspiration is the major regulator of human CSF flow. J Neurosci. 2015 Feb;35(6):2485–91. PubMed #25673843.

    There has never been any significant controversy over whether cerebrospinal fluid actually moves around (only whether or not it’s palpable or can be manipulated, with or without effect/benefit). This is an MRI study of how the fluid circulates, and it confidently concludes it’s pumped every time you take a breath in: “The present results unambiguously identify inspiration as the most important driving force for CSF flow in humans.”

    This strongly suggests that the rhythm CST therapists claim to be able to feel is exactly in sync with respiration. Not so exotic! This is is just one paper, and it isn’t necessarily the last word about the mechanism of CSF circulation, but it does strongly suggest that there is indeed a CSF circulation phenomenon to explain, and it’s powered in a straightforward way that probably can’t be significantly manipulated by any means other than holding your breath.

    BACK TO TEXT
  6. Increased intracranial pressure gets serious with small increases in the fluid volume — only about a 100mL. There are well-described mechanisms that the body uses to try to compensate for increasing intracranial pressure: see the Monro-Kellie hypothesis. Expansion of the cranium is not one of the mechanisms that relieves pressure. BACK TO TEXT
  7. Wirth-Pattullo V, Hayes KW. Interrater reliability of craniosacral rate measurements and their relationship with subjects' and examiners' heart and respiratory rate measurements. Phys Ther. 1994 Oct;74(10):908–16; discussion 917–20. PubMed #8090842.

    The first test of the claim that craniosacral therapists are able to palpate change in cyclical movements of the cranium. They concluded that “therapists were not able to measure it reliably,” and that “measurement error may be sufficiently large to render many clinical decisions potentially erroneous.” They also questioned the existence of craniosacral motion and suggested that CST practitioner might be imagining such motion. This prompted extensive and emphatic rebuttal from Upledger.

    BACK TO TEXT
  8. Moran RW, Gibbons P. Intraexaminer and interexaminer reliability for palpation of the cranial rhythmic impulse at the head and sacrum. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2001 Mar-Apr;24(3):183–190. PubMed #11313614.

    “Palpation of a cranial rhythmic impulse (CRI) is a fundamental clinical skill used in diagnosis and treatment” in craniosacral therapy. So, researchers compared the diagnostics methods of “two registered osteopaths, both with postgraduate training in diagnosis and treatment, using cranial techniques, palpated 11 normal healthy subjects.” Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on much: “interexaminer reliability for simultaneous palpation at the head and the sacrum was poor to nonexistent.” Emphasis mine.

    BACK TO TEXT
  9. Haller H, Lauche R, Cramer H, et al. Craniosacral Therapy for the Treatment of Chronic Neck Pain: A Randomized Sham-controlled Trial. Clin J Pain. 2015 Sep. PubMed #26340656.

    This study reports that craniosacral therapy is an effective treatment for chronic neck pain, compared to “light touch,” in a few dozen patients.

    Before I comment on the scientific value of this paper, I’d like to point out that it’s poorly written. It’s a mess. Just sayin’.

    And the scientific value is probably nil. It’s in that awkward grey zone between good science and overt pseudoscience. The abstract begins with a glaringly disingenuous exaggeration of the scientific context — there is no credible “growing evidence” that craniosacral therapy works! Making such a claim betrays a strong bias that is clear throughout the paper. This experiment was conducted by researchers fishing for confirmation that CST works, the kind of research that finds what it’s looking for and that more objective researchers are never able to replicate.

    The results were technically positive and statistically significant, but also clinically unremarkable and attributable to many possible confounding factors rather than “because CST works.” Even if the results could be accepted at face value, it wouldn’t validate the mechanisms of CST, which are just as dubious as ever. And we know that statistical significance validity, poor at the best of times, is even worse when testing highly implausible claims (see Pandolfi 2014). Either CST only appeared to outperform a sham, thanks to bias-powered mistakes, or it outperformed it only because the CST treatment ritual had more robust nonspecific effects.

    This study will be undoubtedly be touted by CST practitioners as proof that CST works, but it is no such thing without replication that it will almost certainly never get. Remember, there are lots of “positive” studies of homeopathy and acupuncture too…and we know how much that means.

    BACK TO TEXT
  10. Green C, Martin CW, Bassett K, Kazanjian A. A systematic review of craniosacral therapy: biological plausibility, assessment reliability and clinical effectiveness. Complement Ther Med. 1999;7(4):201–207.

    From the abstract: “This systematic review and critical appraisal found insufficient evidence to support craniosacral therapy. Research methods that could conclusively evaluate effectiveness have not been applied to date.”

    BACK TO TEXT
  11. Hartman SE. Cranial osteopathy: its fate seems clear. Chiropractic & Manual Therapies. 2006;14:10. PainSci #56267. A short but clear, compelling, and strong critique of cranial osteopathy. As an osteopath himself, Dr. Hartman’s opinion carries considerable weight, and he writes well. BACK TO TEXT
  12. Ethics 101: making risks and limitations of therapy clear to the patient before they agree to it or pay for it is called “informed consent,” a well-defined necessity for the ethical delivery of any health care product or service. BACK TO TEXT
  13. Flynn TW, Cleland JA, Schaible P. Craniosacral therapy and professional responsibility. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2006 Nov;36(11):834–6. PubMed #17154136. “It is also imperative that physical therapy professionals who perform cranial techniques do not communicate to patients disproved concepts of moving cranial sutures or balancing cranial rhythms. This language is disingenu- ous and may lead to creating disability in our patients by providing the perception that there is some sort of structural deformity in their body and implying that they are ill.” BACK TO TEXT