If you have chronic pain, migraines or stress, this form of hands-on healing may offer some relief.
Touch is incredibly powerful — anyone who spent the peak of the COVID pandemic deprived of it can attest to that. There’s power in a hug from a loved one when you’re struggling. And there’s electricity when someone who makes your heart race holds your hand for the first time. But can touch actually play a role in healing? Practitioners of craniosacral therapy strongly believe it can — and scientific studies support a connection as well.
Craniosacral therapy is a type of hands-on treatment that employs light touch to relieve tension throughout your body and, in turn, alleviate pain, ease emotional stress and promote overall health. But that’s just the start. Here, experts explain more about what the modality is, who it’s for, what to expect from a session and more.
What is Craniosacral Therapy and How Does It Work?
“In a nutshell, craniosacral therapy is hands-on therapy that uses a very gentle touch to help release tension and regulate the nervous system,” says Emma Julaud, a certified craniosacral therapist and massage therapist based in Los Angeles. As its name implies, the treatment focuses on the craniosacral system, which consists of the membranes and fluids extending from the skull and down the neck and spinal cord, says David Booz, a craniosacral therapist at THE WELL New York.
The goal is to assist in a release of the central nervous system (i.e. brain and spinal cord) as well as the body’s tissues and muscles, thereby eliminating pain, boosting immunity and promoting overall health, according to the Cleveland Clinic. How, exactly? Through gentle placement of hands and by facilitating the movement of fluids, which, in turn, allow the practitioners to locate fluid imbalances. From there, they exert minimal pressure to “bring balance back to the body and help support homeostasis,” says Julaud.
“A craniosacral therapist works with someone’s physical body and emotional body; they’re connected."
Booz explains that the craniosacral system is key in making sure the central nervous system functions properly — and this connection is crucial in understanding how the therapy works. “A craniosacral therapist works with someone’s physical body and emotional body; they’re connected,” he says.
In this way, craniosacral therapy can be considered in the same family of healing modalities as massage and reiki, both of which also focus on where the body is holding tension. Similar to these other techniques, craniosacral therapy has been shown to relieve tension and pain, not just in and around the central nervous system but also for other systems in the body — and research, although more is still needed, backs this up.
One study, for example, found the treatment to be helpful for people with chronic neck pain, back pain, headaches, migraines, fibromyalgia and pelvic pain. And another found that it reduced pain symptoms overall and improved the quality of life for the majority of participants. Craniosacral therapy might also be an effective treatment for those with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, temporo-mandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), epilepsy and others, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
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What to Expect From a Craniosacral Therapy Session
First, you need to find a qualified practitioner. Trained craniosacral therapists should have between two to three years of training focused on the modality as well as the skeletal system, fluid movement and physical and energetic imbalances, says Booz.
At the start of the session, the therapist will spend some time getting to know you by asking questions about what prompted you to seek out craniosacral therapy, where (if anywhere) you are experiencing physical pain and what’s going on in your life at the moment, says Booz. This will help give the practitioner an idea of the amount of stress, anxiety or depression, if any, you might be experiencing, as this can impact the body physically.
Then, you’ll be asked to lie on your back (fully clothed) on a massage table, and the therapist will likely rest their hands on your skull and sacrum, explains Julaud. From there, they will work to identify any imbalances by applying no more than 5 grams of pressure (about the weight of a nickel), according to the Upledger Institute International, an organization devoted to the teaching and training of craniosacral therapy. An average appointment takes about an hour.
The number of sessions required to experience a difference in your symptoms and their frequency varies greatly from person to person. For example, Booz says he has clients who suffer from chronic pain or recently went through a stressful life event who have sessions once a week or every two weeks. Meanwhile, others come a few times each year as preventative care, often before a stressful event.
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While the risks involved with craniosacral therapy are minimal (thanks to the treatment's mild manner), certain people should refrain from the treatment overall or at least until they receive the green light from their doctor. “Anyone who recently had a stroke or other injury involving the brain or spinal cord should wait because we want to make sure the [nervous system] is safe before we work on it,” Julaud explains.
In general, the risks of craniosacral therapy are minimal and the reward of better physical and/or mental health just might make the hour-long treatment worth it. (Ready to give it a go? Book a craniosacral therapy session at THE WELL New York.)