Cranio-sacral therapy is a comprehensive therapy which can be used effectively for the treatment of many conditions at all ages. It is extremely gentle, non-invasive, and causes no discomfort or disturbance to the client; nor does it have any risks or adverse side effects. It is, for this reason, particularly suitable for the treatment of babies and children.
In treating the cranio-sacral system, the practitioner is seeking out and identifying areas of restriction, compression or tension through the body which may in turn be impeding proper function of organs, muscles, nerves, blood vessels and body tissues in general. These restrictions may be the result of injury, infection, inflammation, erncstional tension or underlying pathologies. They may also be caused by the compressive pressures of the birth process.
How cranio-sacral therapy works
The cranio-sacral system comprises the membranes (meninges) which surround the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), the bones of the cranium and sacrum which attach to these membranes, the fascia which radiates out from the membranes to all parts of the body (enveloping every nerve and nerve pathway), and the cercbro-spinal fluid, which is produced within the central nervous system and transmitted via the neurological pathways, throughout the body. All of these structures pulsate in a symmetrical, balanced and rhythmic motion (the cranial rhythm) which also reflects out through the fascia to all parts of the body.
Each organ, muscle or tissue is linked to a precise area of the cranio-sacral system through its nerve pathway and associated fascial connections. This connection provides the pathway for a two-way process of interaction through which dysfunction can be diagnosed and proper function restored; the dysfunction reflects from the tissues to the cranio-sacral system, and the corrective forces from the system are reflected back out to the affected area. Restrictions, blockages or dysfunctions of any kind anywhere in the body are reflected as disturbances of rhythm and symmetry in the cranio-sacral system, or its abnormal pulls and tensions within the body tissues. These can be identified, traced to their sources, and diagnosed by the cranio-sacral therapist.
Treatment consists of the practitioner placing his or her hands very gently on the body, identifying the areas of restriction or tension, and following the subtle internal pulls and twists manifested by the cranio-sacral system until points of resistance are encountered and released, thereby enabling the tissues to return to proper healthy futiction. The therapist seeks to restore balance to the cranio-sacral system, thereby enabling it to restore proper function to the affected part of the body.
Treatment is generally soothing, comforting and pleasant, and creates a sense of ease, calmness and well-being. Babies can be treated while cradled in the mother’s arms and even better, while asleep. There is no need to disturb the child by undressing them, since the cranio-sacral patterns can be clearly felt through clothes (or even nappies).
One area to which cranio-sacral therapy is particularly relevant is birth trauma, the effects of which can cause many common childhood conditions, from minor ailments such as glue car to much more severe disabilities such as spasticity.
During the birth process, the baby’s head is forcefully compressed as it twists through thc narrow birth canal. To allow passage, the cranium of a new-born baby is not a solid, bony structure but a soft membranous balloon, designed to adapt readily and pliably to the rigorous pressures of the birth process.
However, intense compression of this delicate structure over many hours, as is often the case, pushes the bones of the cranium up against each other and distorts the shape of the head. This is normal, and unavoidable, but if any of the cranial bones remain at all distorted, or if they fail to release completely, the distortions may prevent the proper formation of the skull, and thereby affect development of the brain or impinge on associated structures such as nerves and blood vessels.
The body’s inherent self-healing powers are usually able to remould the compressed cranium back into its normal shape. However this innate remoulding is not always completely successful; and the degree to which the restrictions and compressions are resolved varies considerably from individual to individual. If the labour has been long and hard, with the baby stuck in the birth canal with its head engaged, the distortions are likely to be more firmly imprinted and less readily resolved by nature. Even where the birth process has been relatively straightforward, restrictions or compressions may persist and these may in turn inhibit full and proper growth and development.
The effects of these cranial bone restrictions will vary considerably. The most severe cases can lead to cerebral palsy, autism, or epilepsy; less severe cases may result in dyslexia, learning difficulties, hyperactivity, and squint. It can also be linked with other minor common childhood complaints, such as allergies and asthma, as well as general health and well-being.
Recurrent ear infections, otitis media, and glue car are very common in early childhood. and are all suitable for treatment by cranio-sacral therapy. They arise from an accunsulation and stagnation of fluids in the middle ear, behind the ear drum, which leads to infection (often recurrent) and could result in partial or even total hearing loss. The stagnation indicates lack of proper drainage from the middle ear of the accumulated fluids, which should normally pass via the eustachian tube (or auditory tube) running from the middle ear to empty into the nasopharyngeal cavity at the back of the mouth.
Constriction of the eustachian tube may occur as a result of compression or distortion during the birth process; blockage of the tube may arise due to the accumulation of mucus. Treatment of the compressions and tensions in the surrounding area by cranio-sacral therapy will generally remove the constrictions, clear the obstruction, and ensure the free drainage of fluids. Successful treatment relieves the immediate symptoms, restores proper hearing, and therefore proper learning and speech development, and reduces the risk of total hearing loss. It can also reduce the need for antibiotics, and the invasive processes of inserting grommets and other ear, nose and throat operations, including tonsillectomy.
Colic (and associated ailments) is another condition in young babies for which cranio-sacral therapy is appropriate, and for which it has been found to be effective. Classic colic involves prolonged inconsolable screaming for several hours, with no apparent cause, generally in the early evening. Accompanying symptoms include regurgitation of feeds, excessive wind, inability to bring up wind, projectile vomiting, and obvious pain. In many cases drugs are prescribed, but these are rarely effective in resolving the problem and may have undesirable direct side effects, such as digestive disturbances, diarrhoea or constipation, and latent effects on the immune system and underlying constitution. It is always preferable to avoid the use of drugs with young babies unless absolutely necessary. In very severe cases of colic, which have reached the state of pyloric stenosis (where the pylorus has narrowed to the degree that food cannot pass from the stomach into the small intestine), an operation is often performed to relieve the stenosis.
To treat most cases of colic or colic-like conditions, the cranio-sacral therapist concentrates on the principal areas: the cranial base and the solar plexus region. The first, the cranial base, concerns the occipital bone and its relationship with the atlas - vertebra (Cl). The cranial base is the area most susceptible to compression and distortion during the birth process, due to its location and the direction of the pressure exerted on this area by the baby’s passage through the birth canal. It is also an area of vital importance to the overall health and functioning of all individuals, as it is close to many other important structures. These include the jugular foramen, a hole in the base of the skull between the occiput and the temporal bones, through which passes the vagus nerve, or nerve X. This provides the main parasympathetic nerve supply to most of the digestive system; its compression can lead to over-stimulation of the nerve, causing persistent spasm of the digestive organs and, consequently, colic.
Also located at the cranial base is another important structure: the superior cervical sympathetic ganghion. This is the uppermost and largest ganglion of the chain which runs alongside the vertebral column providing sympathetic nerve supply to the viscera. Compression or pressure on the superior cervical sympathetic ganglion may lead to sympathetic stimulation throughout the whole nervous system, resulting in hyperstimulation of all the viscera, and generalised over-stimulation, restlessness, tension and hyperactivity. This will be particularly manifest in the plexi, including the solar plexus, which may then create tension and spasm in the digestive system and therefore colic.
The simultaneous stimulation of both the vagus (parasympathetic) and plexi (sympathetic) nervous system is particularly troublesome to the digestive system, due to their conflicting functions: the parasympathetic supply aims to increase digestive activity and gut motility; while the sympathetic supply seeks to close down the digestive activity and shut the food pathways in the gut such as the cardiac sphincter and the pyloric sphincter. The result is conflict, obstruction and spasm, and the many manifestations of colic.
Increased sympathetic nerve stimulation will also lead to increased stimulation of the adrenal medulla. Adrenalin is released and this causes further generalised stimulation, tension, restlessness and hyperactivity, as well as creating a vicious circle of sympathetic-adrenal over-activity.
Equally significant to the incidence and treatment of colic and associated conditions is the local region of the solar plexus, the umbilicus, the diaphragm and the pylorus.
The solar plexus is, in addition to stimulation by pressure on the cranial base, also liable to be stimulated by shock, trauma or distress. This is something with which many adults will be familiar, but babies, with their more sensitive systems, are more responsive, and more susceptible to the digestive disturbances which ensue. Tension is also widely recognised (both in adults and in children) as manifesting in the diaphragm, and this again is all the more evident in babies. Tension in the diaphragm causes restriction of other, associated structures, and in particular constriction of the oesophagus as it passes through the diaphragm into the stomach. Tension can also affect the function of the pylorus, through which food passes from the stomach into the small intestine.
Constriction of these digestive passages is of greater consequence to small babies precisely because they are smaller, and the passages are therefore narrower so that tension and constriction easily lead to pain and difficulty in passing food or liquid, or even to complete obstruction. If left untreated, tension in the diaphragm, solar plexus and cranial base may well predispose to subsequent disease later in life: most notably such conditions as duodenal ulcer or hiatus hernia.
It is perhaps often assumed that because babies are not rational or verbal they do not experience shock and trauma in the same way as adults, or to think that a baby going through the natural process of birth and being lovingly cared for should not be experiencing shock and trauma. But the process of birth is itself often difficult and traumatic for both mother and baby. If the birth is difficult, the labour prolonged, or the baby stuck in the birth canal for many hours, then the shock and trauma absorbed into the system may be immense. Arrival in the outside world may induce further shock and trauma as the baby emerges suddenly into a busy, brightly lit, and often noisy environment after seclusion in the womb. The process of being washed and weighed and the immediate handling and aftercare of the baby are also a dramatic change from the previous nine months. Ideally every baby should be allowed to come into the world slowly, be placed immediately on the mother’s breast, and allowed to acclimatise gradually to its new environment before being subjected to the less comfortable practical processes of life after birth.
A particularly common cause of shock is the premature cutting of the umbilical cord. The umbilical cord is the lifeline through which the baby has received all its oxygen and nutrition throughout its time in the womb. As the baby emerges into the world, the cord continues to provide these essential nutrients for several minutes after the birth. The sudden severance of this lifeline can come as an unnecessary shock, which is then absorbed into the solar plexus and umbilical areas and manifests as a tension and tightness in the cranio-sacral system around these areas (with consequent effects on the surrounding viscera as already described).
It is also very common to find a profound sense of shock held in the solar plexus of babies born by caesarean section. This shock is incurred at the time of the incision, when the fluid pressure within the womb changes very suddenly, causing both physical and emotional shock to the baby. This frequently manifests as a sense of seizing up throughout the body; as contraction, closing down and tightness in the head, and as tension and tightness in the solar plexus.
In the case of enforced caesarean section, when the baby’s head has been engaged and under pressure for a prolonged and stressful period and subsequently caesarean section is performed out of necessity, then the baby suffers the worst of both worlds. It is subjected both to severe pressures on the cranium and to the shock effects of the caesarean section.
Shock may result from many other physical and emotional causes, including tension picked up from the mother, and other underlving stresses and tensions between the parents, in the environment, or in family relationships in general.
Treatment by cranio-sacral therapy can also be effective for a wide range of other conditions common in childhood: mucus congestion, catarrh, ear, nose and throat problems, constipation and diarrhoea, obsessional behaviour, personality disorders, and tantrums. All these can be related to cranial boric restrictions, as can hyperactivity, head-banging — vhich is often an attempt by the child to release uncomfortable cranial bone restrictions — and forceful sucking of the thumb and other objects (particularly when pushed hard against the roof of the mouth), which may reflect restriction in the bones of the palate or between the vomer and the sphenoid bone. — Childhood torticollis, involving excessive muscle tone in the sterno-mastoid muscle causing twisting of the neck, is frequently operated on, but may be due to compression of the jugular foramen, with consequent pressure and hyper-stimulation of the spinal accessory nerve which supplies the sterno-mastoid muscle.
Asymmetries of the bones which form the orbit can be the cause of squints and other visual problems. Distortions of the sphenoid bone may constrict the foramina and fissures at the back of the orbit through which nerves and blood vessels supplying the eyes must travel, thereby affecting vision, shortsightedness, squints and lazy eyes.
Autism has been shown by recent medical research in Canada to be associated with reduced blood supply to the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain. An association has also been made between autism and restricted mobility of the temporal and frontal bones,restricting blood flow to these areas of the brain.
Cerebral palsy is generally considered to be due to brain damage. However cranio-sacral therapy has been shown to be remarkably effective in treating some cases of cerebral palsy, even in teenagers) In these cases, the cause may lie, not in actual brain damage, but in severe restriction and compression of the cranial bones, preventing proper growth and development of an otherwise undamaged brain.
Another serious disorder which can be treated by cranio-sacral therapy is meningitis. Inflammation of the meninges often occurs in more minor forms than full blown meningitis; these are usually described as meningism, or more frequently not diagnosed at all. These lesser forms are often the result of minor infections such as colds, flu, ear infections and such like spreading to the meninges. The effects, however, both in childsen and in adults are not necessarily minor, and can range from persistent headaches, neck pain, nausea, vomiting and visual disturbances to chronic hyperactivity, tantrums, exhaustion, debilitation or severe personality disorders, depending on the extent and severity of the inflammation. Cranio-sacral therapy, by directly treating the meninges, can be very effective in treating the aftereffects of such meningeal infiammations.
Many other symptoms and conditions can be diagnosed and treated, including floppiness, spasticity, tension, lack of response, lack of sucking reflex, feeding difficulties, feeding from one breast only (which may be due to cervical and cranial base restrictions resulting in discomfort for the baby on turning its head to the affected side).
Treatment at the earliest possible opportunity is highly advisable. Not only will conditions respond more readily the sooner they are treated, and less readily the longer they have been there, but also the cranium and the body structure are constantly growing, fusing and consolidating into the patterns of growth imprinted on them, and become increasingly solidified and resistant to treatment with time.
Response to treatment is generally fairly rapid, but will vary according to the age of the child and the chronicity of the condition.
In young babies, the response should normally be very quick; as the child gets older, and consequently the cranial restrictions more established and consolidated, then several treatments may be required. It should also be remembered that the overt symptoms may be an indication of more complex underlying patterns of restriction and asymmetry in the cranium, the cranio-sacral system and the structure generally (which have yet to manifest as symptoms), and further treatment to resolve these underlying imbalances may be recommended in order to prevent the recurrence of the current condition or the subsequent emergence of other symptoms and conditions.
While treatment of any pattern is possible throughout life into old age, the treatment process will take much longer where the condition has become established, and a complete resolution becomes less likely as time goes on. Early treatment and checking are therefore important, not simply for the treatment of current minor ailments, but primarily to ensure the complete resolution of any underlying distortions which might have longer-term and more debilitating consequences later in life — by which time the restrictions may be too consolidated to achieve a complete release. For instance, dyslexia may not become apparent to the parents (or doctors) until school work falls behind — by which time the condition has become consolidated and will take longer to resolve, when it could have been diagnosed by a cranio-sacral therapist at birth and corrected immediately.
Midwives and health visitors are increasingly seeking alternative ways to explain and resolve infant and childhood conditions. Cranio-sacral therapy and other such complementary approaches offer alternative ways of approaching problems and resolving many common, troublesome and distressing ailments, drastically reducing the need for drugs and surgery and offering general improvement in health and well-being.
It is to be hoped that cranio-sacral therapy will become an integral part of every maternity ward, and a standard part of the training for all health and medical professionals working with pregnant women, young babies and children.
- George MS. Costs DC Kouris K, Ring H, ElI P. Cerebral blood flow abnormalities in adults with infantile autism. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 1992; 180,7: 413-417.
- Upledger JE, Vredevoogd JD. Cranio-sacral therapy. Seattle: Eastlands Press, 1981.
- 3 Arbuckle B E. Cranial aspects of emergencies of - the newborn. American Osteopathic Association Journal, 1948.
Reproduced from The Health Visitor, Volume 67 Number 7 July 1994.
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