By Rebecca Flowers
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2007.
The spectrum of disease, trauma, and dysfunction that can affect the physiological development and health of the youngest client populations is widespread, and seems to be increasing every day. So how do we as bodyworkers step in to affect meaningful change in the face of such prevalent challenges as learning disabilities, autism, seizure disorder, digestive problems, colic, allergies, birth trauma, and other severe pediatric disorders?
Through more than twenty years of practice working primarily with children, I have found craniosacral therapy (CST) to be consistently effective in restoring and maintaining health at every level. Whether I’m dealing with an essentially well baby or an adolescent suffering from seizures, CST proves time and again to be a reliable and relevant method for pinpointing and eliminating the source of dysfunction. Perhaps most significantly, the technique generally requires no greater than five grams of pressure (the mere weight of a nickel) to deliver results, which makes CST especially suitable for children—and easy on the therapist’s body.
The Basis of Craniosacral Therapy
The extremely light touch required for CST is rooted in the nature of the system that inspired the therapy’s creation—
the craniosacral system. This vital system comprises the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. It extends from the bones of the cranium (skull, face, and mouth)—down to the sacrum (tailbone).
Like the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, the craniosacral system has a rhythm that can be palpated throughout the body. It is a subtle rhythm requiring a subtle touch to perceive. CST developer John E. Upledger, an osteopathic doctor, has always asserted that bodyworkers are especially adept at learning the technique because, in his words, “The sense of touch is already so highly developed.”
At its norm, the craniosacral rhythm pulsates at a rate of six to twelve cycles per minute. The rate is determined by the production and reabsorption of cerebrospinal fluid within the ventricles of the brain, and is palpable within the movement of the attending membranes. Any imbalance in this process can cause sensory, motor, and other neurological dysfunctions.
In practice, CST generally uses very gentle pressure to access and monitor this rhythm to detect restrictions within the body that have resulted in dysfunction. While the areas most often associated with the craniosacral rhythm are the head, torso, and sacrum, the rhythm can be perceived anywhere in the body.
At the beginner’s level, pathological problems are localized by feeling where there is a lack of symmetry in the rhythmic motion of the craniosacral system. The asymmetry of motion doesn’t indicate what the problem is, but it does show where the problem is located.
Once found, other techniques are often introduced to help
determine the exact nature of the problem. As the asymmetry is eliminated and normal physiological motion is restored, the problem is resolved, or is on its way to being resolved.
The Science Behind CST
It has only been in the last thirty years that a widespread knowledge of the craniosacral system has emerged—and it began in the oddest of ways: during a neck surgery where Upledger was assisting. While trying to hold a membrane still, he observed a slow, rhythmic movement that couldn’t be explained by any medical texts
at the time.
His curiosity piqued, Upledger began searching for the answer. He started with the research of William Sutherland, the father of cranial osteopathy. For some twenty years, beginning in the early 1900s, Sutherland had explored the concept that the bones of the skull were structured to allow for movement. For decades after, this theory remained at odds with the beliefs of the scientific and medical communities. Upledger believed that if cranial bone movement existed, as Sutherland proposed, this could explain the rhythm he had encountered in surgery.
Shortly thereafter, Upledger was asked to help scientifically confirm the existence of cranial bone motion. From 1975 to 1983, he served as clinical researcher and professor of biomechanics at Michigan State University, where he supervised a team of anatomists, physiologists, biophysicists, and bioengineers in research and testing. The results not only confirmed Sutherland’s cranial bone movement theory, but also led to clarification of the mechanisms behind this motion: the craniosacral system. Upledger’s continued work in the field ultimately resulted in the development of what he coined craniosacral therapy.
CST in Action
To be sure, Upledger’s discoveries over the years have paved the way to an increased understanding of how the human body functions. Yet, he will be the first to concede that the true significance of his life’s work lies in the lives changed simply by helping the body’s natural healing mechanisms do their job.
Casey and Kate are two examples from my own practice. These two children came to me at different stages in their lives and presented with very different symptoms. What they shared, however, were system restrictions that were impeding their bodies’ abilities to perform as they were designed. It turned out they also shared quick and dramatic responses to the effects of CST.
Casey is one of a set of twins born prematurely at thirty-two weeks and delivered by Caesarean section. Of the two boys, Casey bore the greater burden of health issues. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy (CP), he lived the first month of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit.
When I first saw Casey, he presented primarily as a spastic diplegic. This form of CP is characterized by spasticity of the lower extremities and difficulty walking, among other traits. In Casey’s case, his legs moved in a scissors-like pattern when he tried to walk due to the abnormal tension in his pelvis. Aside from this, he was a very bright little boy, could feed himself, and had good age-appropriate verbal skills.
Through CST evaluation, I found a lot of abnormal tension in Casey’s cranial vault. CST was used to release these tensions within the intracranial membrane system and release restrictions at the cranial base. Through this process, Casey underwent a lot of full-body unwinding of compensating patterns that mobilized his dural tube down into his sacrum and pelvis. Because the intracranial membrane system and the membrane sac holding the spinal cord are continuous fascia, the entire craniosacral system can be mobilized simply by following the body as it unwinds restrictions through the spine and dural tube.
I used CST on Casey for five consecutive days. By the end of the fifth day, he had improved ocular motor control, as well as upper extremity control. He was able not only to feed himself better, but he could also play with blocks and perform other fine-motor activities. Most remarkably, he was able to abduct his hips to straddle and sit with a straight back on an elongated therapy ball (called a peanut). Now, just over two years old, Casey continues to receive CST on a regular basis and is making developmental progress.
Kate is another case of significant improvement seen within the first week of starting CST. She came to me at the age of eleven months with a diagnosis of dysgenesis (or malformation) of the corpus callosum.
At our first appointment, Kate presented as nonresponsive to sound or visual stimuli. She couldn’t crawl or roll; in fact, she was extremely flaccid. She couldn’t grasp objects, and she had a hyperactive gag response. A CST evaluation was performed and areas of restriction were located. At the next appointment one week later, Kate was alerting to sounds and visually tracking (by moving her full head) when she saw one of her parents walk by. This was the first of many developmental milestones.
CST sessions with Kate centered largely on releasing restrictions within her dural tube, from her cranial vault all the way to the sacrum. Because of its malformed corpus callosum, Kate’s brain didn’t develop in a sequential, normal way. As a result, she experienced periods of growth in one area and digression in another. The significant role of CST was in facilitating further development so she didn’t get stuck in any one area.
Today, at age three and a half, Kate continues to make progress. She is able to stand up independently in the middle of the floor and walk. She can change direction and turn corners. She can climb into her high chair with just a little bit of assistance. She vocalizes, makes eye contact, enjoys music, plays with toys, swims, and loves to laugh. Kate also enjoys the preschool class she just started attending.
CST for All Levels of Health
While the conditions and outcomes cited here are dramatic in nature, they each demonstrate the basic capacity of the human body to self correct. Sometimes all that is needed—even in the relatively healthy person—is a gentle, well-placed touch to help that process along.
Using CST within the first few days of a newborn’s life, for example, may reduce or avert problems that might otherwise appear later on, such as respiratory problems (e.g., asthma), hyperactivity, attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, dyslexia, seizures, allergies, and chronic ear infections.
This is why CST is always my first technique of choice as an evaluative tool for assessing the overall functioning of the body’s systems. It offers an effective method not only for pinpointing existing areas of dysfunction but, better yet, preventing their formation in the first place.
No matter the case at hand, CST offers a safe and reliable way for us to use our palpatory expertise to gently facilitate the free flow and ease of movement of the body’s fluids, membranes, and fascia. In doing so, we have the potential to significantly help children develop to their optimal capacity.
Rebecca Flowers, OTR, BCP, CST-D, is a certified craniosacral therapist on the clinical staff of The Upledger Clinic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. She holds specialty certifications in the administration and interpretation of the Sensory Integration and Praxis tests by Sensory Integration International, and has pediatric specialty certification from the American Occupational Therapy Association. She is also an instructor of CST and SomatoEmotional Release classes for The Upledger Institute.
For more information about craniosacral therapy and its application to children, contact The Upledger Institute at 800-233-5880 or visit www.upledger.com.