Craniosacral therapy – also called cranial balancing, cranial osteopathy, or craniopathy – is a therapeutic method in which the bones of the skull (including those in the face and mouth), spine, and pelvis are massaged in an effort to improve range of motion and alleviate stress. Craniosacral therapy is a variant of chiropractic and osteopathic medicine, and those who practice it believe that the massage increases the flow of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid).
In the 1930s, osteopathic doctor William Sutherland hypothesized that the bones of the skull – which are fused together in adults – were actually meant to move slightly, and proposed the theory that the cerebrospinal fluid naturally flows between the lower back and the skull in a rhythmic, pulse-like motion. Based on Sutherland’s observations, Dr. John E. Upledger invented craniosacral therapy in the 1970s. The goal of craniosacral therapy is to regulate and balance this movement of spinal fluid by removing blockages in various bodily systems in an effort to make the body healthier overall. Advocates of craniosacral therapy believe that it can help alleviate backaches, neck and back pain, jaw pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and dysfunction of the central nervous system, immune system, and endocrine system.
Craniosacral therapy is performed by trained practitioners, which are usually osteopathic doctors, chiropractors, and massage therapists. Therapy is quite simple and involves gentle massage and manipulation of the bones of the skull and face, and sessions typically last anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour in duration.
Despite its popularity, there is limited scientific evidence to support the use of craniosacral therapy for any condition, as Sutherland’s theory on the rhythmic and pulsating movement of cerebrospinal fluid is not consistent with the current scientific understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the skull, brain, and spinal cord. However, anecdotal evidence from various studies and individual practitioners continues to suggest that craniosacral therapy does have some benefit in treating the symptoms commonly associated with Fibromyalgia. As such, studies continue to be done in an effort to investigate its effectiveness.
A recent study by Mataran-Penarrocha et al. sought to determine the effects of craniosacral therapy on anxiety, depression, pain, sleep quality, and quality of life in patients with Fibromyalgia. The study took 84 Fibromyalgia patients and randomly assigned them to receive either craniosacral therapy or a placebo treatment (during which a disconnected ultrasound probe was applied to various points along the spine and knees). Those receiving the craniosacral therapy underwent one hour sessions twice a week for 25 weeks, while the ultrasound “Placebo” group received two 30-minute sessions weekly for 25 weeks. All patients, regardless of the group they were in, were instructed to continue their normal drug treatment while on this study.
The researchers measured the study subjects’ anxiety, pain, sleep quality, depression and quality of life at various times throughout the study. Six months after the 25-week study, those who had received craniosacral therapy showed vast improvement in their levels of anxiety, pain, quality of life, and sleep. The study also found that physical function also improved among those who received craniosacral therapy. The authors concluded that craniosacral therapy should be considered as a complementary therapy to existing pharmaceutical, physical, and psychological therapies for individuals with Fibromyalgia (Mataran-Penarrocha et al., 2011).
Another study looked at the role of craniosacral therapy on tender points of pain as well as heart rate in people with Fibromyalgia. Similar to the previously described study, this study by Castro-Sanchez et al. randomized 92 Fibromyalgia patients to treatment with either craniosacral therapy or a placebo treatment with a disconnected magnet therapy machine. All patients wore a 24-hour monitor to measure their heart rate, and pain intensity was measured by a physical evaluation of tender points. After 20 weeks on the study, those subjects who received the intervention of craniosacral therapy had significantly reduced pain in 13 of the 18 tender points. After two months and one year following completion of therapy, significant reductions in pain were observed at four of 18 tender points for those in the craniosacral therapy group. The authors concluded that craniosacral was useful for improving medium-term pain in individuals suffering from Fibromyalgia (Castro-Sanchez et al., 2011).
In summary, there is limited research available regarding the use of craniosacral therapy to treat the symptoms associated with Fibromyalgia; however, the few studies that have been conducted to date show promising findings. More research is needed to determine if craniosacral therapy can be useful to those suffering from Fibromyalgia. That said, the research that has been conducted is positive and the fact that craniosacral therapy is very low risk and unobtrusive make it something those suffering from Fibromyalgia may wish to consider testing. It may well be that the theory behind craniosacral therapy is incorrect and that the patient benefits are more specifically related to the massage like nature of the therapy – but for the Fibromyalgia patient who is seeking relief, the underlying scientific roots of the relief are likely of less importance than the actual reduction in pain.