Craniosacral therapy (CST) is considered to be a pseudoscience. Also known as cranial osteopathy, it is based on the notion that living tissues are imbued with an energy that produces impulses which can be palpated by manipulating the bones in the skull.
This therapy was “discovered” by an osteopath named Dr. William Sutherland more than 100 years ago. Sutherland believed that cranial sutures (the place where the skull bones meet) were designed to allow small degrees of motion caused by the body’s “life force,” which he referred to as the “Breath of Life.”
Essentially, Dr. Sutherland believed that restrictions in the cranial sutures can interfere with the normal pulsations or flow of cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord) resulting in disease. By detecting aberrations in this rhythm, and applying the appropriate pressure on the sutures, he believed many ailments could be remedied.
Practitioners believe that gentle massage of the bones of the head as well as the spine and pelvis increase the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. They believe there is a link between the fluid in the head and the sacrum (the base of the lower back) and that the rhythm of the fluid that flows between these areas can be detected like a pulse. They say CST normalizes, balances, and eliminates obstructions (blockages) in various systems throughout the body, allowing the body to function in a healthy manner.
CST is practiced mostly by osteopaths, massage therapists, and chiropractors and is used to treat all kinds of maladies, including headaches, neck and back pain, chronic fatigue, motor-coordination difficulties, eye problems, depression, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, central nervous system disorders, and many other conditions.
Today’s leading proponent is John Upledger, DO, founder of the Upledger Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. To demonstrate how far out this practice is, Quackwatch published excerpts from Upledger’s book, Cranio Sacral Therapy: Touchstone of Natural Healing, in which the doctor claims to communicate with the patient’s “Inner Physician” during CST.
“By connecting deeply with a patient while doing CranioSacral Therapy, it was possible in most cases to solicit contact with the patient's Inner Physician,” Upledger writes in Chapter Two. “It also became clear that the Inner Physician could take any form the patient could imagine —an image, a voice or a feeling. Usually once the image of the Inner Physician appeared, it was ready to dialog with me and answer questions about the underlying causes of the patient's health problems and what can be done to resolve them. It also became clear that when the conversation with the Inner Physician was authentic, the craniosacral system went into a holding pattern.”
Upledger goes on to tell the story of how he cured a four-month old baby who could not move properly. He claims the child’s Inner Physician told him that the problems stemmed from a toxin inhaled by the mother while cleaning grease off an antique automobile engine during the fourth month of her pregnancy. The Inner Physician told Upledger to "pump the parietal bones that form a large part of the roof of the skull, and to pass a lot of my energy through the brain from the back of the skull to the front." After about an hour of this treatment, the child returned to normal.
There is no scientific support for CST due to the fact that its underlying premises – that the cranial sutures move and that there is a form of energy known as the Breath of Life – are false. Science has never been able to find any evidence of the existence of a universal life force (qi, chi, prana, Breath of Life), and the idea that the bones in the skull can move is simply not true. These bones fuse by the end of adolescence and research has never demonstrated that they can be moved by manual manipulation. In addition, while the brain does indeed pulsate, this is related to the cardiovascular system – not some imaginary Breath of Life. Last, no relationship between brain pulsation and general health has ever been demonstrated.
A 1999 analysis of studies regarding the efficacy of CST conducted by the University of British Columbia found no “valid scientific evidence that cranio sacral therapy provides a benefit to patients.” In addition, the study reports “adverse events” resulting in head-injured patients during CST. (The complete report can be found here: http://faculty.une.edu/com/jnorton/BCOHTAassessment.pdf )
There hasn't been much credible research since then. As this 2019 article in PainScience.com lists, even medical journals favorable to the alternative market say it's time for CST proponents to either come up with credible evidence that this therapy works or "move on."
It’s also important to note that there have been several deaths related to the use of CST. For instance, Kimberly Lee Strohecker, 30, died in 1999 after receiving CST treatments from a Pennsylvania chiropractor. Strohecker had epilepsy and stopped taking her medication upon the advice of the chiropractor. Her condition deteriorated and she died from multiple seizures and related complications.
A three month-old Dutch baby died in 2007 as a result of “fatal complications after a hyperflexion of the neck” which occurred during CST. Doctors at UMC St. Radboud in Nijmegen said that because there is no scientific proof that CST has any benefits, it should not be used on infants.
While the Vatican has not issued a statement about the use of CST, it’s moral theology warns that reliance on unproven medical treatments can constitute superstitious medicine.
“Catholic moral teaching requires that we use ordinary means to save a life or to treat a malady,” writes Kevin G. Rickert, Ph.D. in Homiletics and Pastoral Review. “When a person is confronted with a life threatening condition, or some less serious illness (especially a communicable disease), which can be easily treated by ordinary means, there is a moral obligation to do so. Extraordinary means, on the other hand, are never required but instead remain optional.”
He goes on to explain that “Unscientific medical cures are neither ordinary nor extraordinary, because they are not real means at all. As such, they are neither required nor permitted. The main problem with these kinds of ‘cures’ is that they don’t really work; they are irrational, and as such they are contrary to the natural law."
If one puts their full faith in unproven methods such as this to treat a serious illness such as diabetes or heart disease (or the epilepsy that caused the death of Ms. Strohecker), while refusing the best science of the day, they fall into the trap of what’s called “superstitious medicine.”
“In this case, I subject my mind to deception," Dr. Rickert writes, "and at the same time, I neglect my obligation to employ ordinary means; in so doing, I subject my body to illness and my loved ones to potential hardships.”
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