Craniosacral Therapy

It dawned on me recently that I’ve never talked about one of my favorite massage styles – craniosacral therapy. I’ve alluded to it in several blog posts, and it’s very clearly mentioned on my website, but I’ve never properly unpacked this fairly dense term. So here it goes: what is craniosacral therapy?

Craniosacral therapy is…

…difficult to explain. Maybe it’s just me, since I’m rather science-minded and I like having research and citations to back up my massage repertoire (see here, here), but when I try to explain this technique to others I often come off as a little mistrustful of what I’m saying, as if I didn’t fully endorse the product I was promoting.

When I don’t have time to go into details, I just tell people that craniosacral therapy is magic. But it isn’t magic; it’s just a little mysterious.

A craniosacral massage has one general objective: balancing the rhythm of the cerebrospinal fluid. This is the fluid that the spine and brain are bathed in; it lubricates the bones, spinal cord, and brain, and it acts as a cushion against damage (like a head injury). Well, that’s nice. But “balancing the rhythm of the fluid” – what does that even mean?

Let’s get some background first. From Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Movement of the CSF [cerebrospinal fluid] is affected by the downward pull of gravity, the continual process of secretion and absorption, blood pulsations in contingent tissue, respiration, pressure from the veins, and head and body movements.

As you can gather from the quote, the movement of the fluid isn’t linked to any one specific thing (as blood flow is linked to cardiac output, for example); all of the factors mentioned above cause the CSF to have its own unique and variable rhythm as it moves up and down the spine. And in order to “balance” this rhythm, the massage therapist uses gentle holds and directed pressure to guide it in the right direction.

There are a lot of claims as to what achieving such a balance can accomplish, some more believable (and verifiable) than others. But besides the obvious effect of relaxation, I mostly just stick with two concrete goals – minimizing tension in the jaw and alleviating headaches/sinus pressure.

When we think of the skull of an adult, we think of it as one giant entity. A bunch of bones fused together. And that’s partly true – at birth, the human skull has 44 separate bony elements, but as we get older, at least half of them fuse together into larger bones (e.g., temporal bone, frontal bone, occipital bone, etc). We’re left with a bunch of bones tightly connected to each other, but not through typical joints that allow a lot of movement, like in the shoulder or elbow. Rather, most of the bones in the skull are joined through synarthrodial sutras (image).

Synarthrodial literally means “without movement”, but the fibres do actually allow a little bit of movement between bones (source). Sometimes the bones can move improperly and get stuck in positions that cause pressure to build up. Other times, the cause of this pressure is more active – clenching your jaw when stressed, grinding your teeth at night. The muscles around the jaw start to ache; the temples start to throb. That’s when craniosacral can be most effective.

The techniques in craniosacral therapy are subtle, and its effects can be subtle too. Don’t get me wrong, some clients report dramatic shifts during the course of their massage. One of my new clients was absolutely astounded that such a light touch could produce such an overwhelming sense of relaxation. More often then not, though, clients report that the biggest releases come a little later, sometimes even days after the massage.

Many practitioners use craniosacral techniques exclusively, and have designed entire sessions for it. I tend to just allocate some time for craniosacral work at the beginning of a session, if my client and I feel it would be beneficial. If you think this type of massage might be beneficial for you, you should check it out.

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