Cranial sacral therapy (CST) is sometimes also referred to as craniosacral therapy. It’s a type of bodywork that relieves compression in the bones of the head, sacrum (a triangular bone in the lower back), and spinal column.
CST is noninvasive. It uses gentle pressure on the head, neck, and back to relieve the stress and pain caused by compression. It can, as a result, help to treat a number of conditions.
It’s thought that through the gentle manipulation of the bones in the skull, spine, and pelvis, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the central nervous system can be normalized. This removes “blockages” from the normal flow, which enhances the body’s ability to heal.
Many massage therapists, physical therapists, osteopaths, and chiropractors are able to perform cranial sacral therapy. It can be part of an already-scheduled treatment visit or the sole purpose for your appointment.
Depending on what you’re using CST to treat, you may benefit from between 3 and 10 sessions, or you may benefit from maintenance sessions. Your healthcare provider will help you determine what’s right for you.
Benefits and uses
CST is thought to relieve compression in the head, neck, and back. This can soothe pain and release both emotional and physical stress and tension. It’s also thought to help restore cranial mobility and ease or release restrictions of the head, neck, and nerves.
Cranial sacral therapy can be used for people of all ages. It may be part of your treatment for conditions like:
- migraines and headaches
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- disturbed sleep cycles and insomnia
- sinus infections
- neck pain
- recurrent ear infections or colic in infants
- trauma recovery, including trauma from whiplash
- mood disorders like anxiety or depression
- difficult pregnancies
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that CST is an effective treatment, but more research is needed to scientifically determine this. There’s evidence that it can relieve stress and tension, though some research suggests that it may only be effective for infants, toddlers, and children.
Other studies, however, indicate that CST may be an effective treatment — or part of an effective treatment plan — for certain conditions. One 2012 study found that it was effective at reducing symptoms in those with severe migraines. Another study found that people with fibromyalgia experienced relief from symptoms (including pain and anxiety) thanks to CST.
Side effects and risks
The most common side effect of cranial sacral therapy with a licensed practitioner is mild discomfort following the treatment. This is often temporary and will fade within 24 hours.
There are certain individuals who shouldn’t use CST. These include people who have:
- severe bleeding disorders
- a diagnosed aneurysm
- a history of recent traumatic head injuries, which may include cranial bleeding or skull fractures
Procedure and technique
When you arrive for your appointment, your practitioner will ask you about your symptoms and any preexisting conditions that you have.
You’ll typically remain fully clothed during the treatment, so wear comfortable clothing to your appointment. Your session will last about an hour, and you’ll likely begin by lying down on your back on the massage table. The practitioner may begin at your head, feet, or near the middle of your body.
Using five grams of pressure (which is about the weight of a nickel), the provider will gently hold your feet, head, or sacrum to listen to their subtle rhythms. If they detect it’s needed, they may gently press or reposition you to normalize the flow of the cerebrospinal fluids. They may use tissue-release methods while supporting one of your limbs.
During the treatment, some people experience different sensations. These may include:
- feeling deep relaxation
- falling asleep, and later recalling memories or seeing colors
- sensing pulsations
- having a “pins and needles” (numbing) sensation
- having a hot or cold sensation
Cranial sacral therapy may be able to provide relief for certain conditions, with the strongest evidence supporting it as a treatment for conditions like headaches. Because there’s a very low risk for side effects, some people may prefer this to prescription medications that come with more risks.
Make sure you ask your healthcare provider if they’re licensed for CST before making the appointment, and if they’re not, look for a provider who is.