Craniosacral Therapy Part I: Fundamental Anatomy and Physiology

Craniosacral Therapy (CST) is a relatively new experience for many people.  It is very common that first-time clients have never experienced craniosacral therapy or worked with a craniosacral therapist.  I love this!  It is a wonderful therapy and is often much easier to explain once one has had a personal experience with this work.  However, I am going to create a 3 part series of posts to further explore various aspects of craniosacral therapy**.  My intention with these posts is to set a foundation for the cognitive understanding of CST.  Although these posts will likely only scratch the surface, my hope is to answer some commonly asked questions for those who are current or potential clients looking for more information. In this first post, I am going to dive into some of the basic the anatomy and physiology behind craniosacral therapy.  This really is the foundation for the practice.

The Craniosacral System: The Core of the Human Body

The craniosacral system includes the bones of the cranium, the spine, and the sacrum, the soft tissues and fascia beneath these, with the brain and spinal cord at the center.  Surrounding the brain and spinal cord is a fluid called the cerebrospinal fluid.  The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) brings oxygen and nutrients to the brain and nerves of the spinal cord and carries away waste, cellular debris, and toxins. The production and reabsorption of CST creates a rhythmic “breathing” pattern in the craniosacral system.  This “breath” feels much like the breathing of the lungs; however, they do not occur at the same rate. The CSF is produced and reabsorbed at a rate of about 8-12 cycles per minute, which creates the baseline for the Craniosacral Rhythm (CSR).  Although this rhythm is quite subtle, it is palpable to the craniosacral therapist and is a large part of what directs the therapist during a session.  Along with this “breathing”, there is a subtle movement transferred into the rest of the body (down to the cells!) that can be detected from any point of the body.  This motion is much like the ripples created in a pond when a rock is thrown in.  Any restriction in the expression of the craniosacral rhythm is noted by the therapist and provides valuable information for the therapeutic process.

Central Nervous System: Our Hard Wiring

The brain and spinal cord house the structures of the central nervous system, which includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  It is important to mention these two systems, because craniosacral therapy acts directly on the structure and function of central nervous system in a very gentle, yet profound way.  The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight, flight, or freeze” system.  This is the part of our wiring that allows us to notice when we are in danger and must respond accordingly.  On a physiological level, when the sympathetic nervous system is turned “on”, the blood in the body goes to the muscles of the arms and legs, the heart and breathing rate increases, the pupils dilate, and stress hormones are released.  The parasympathetic nervous system is often called the rest and repair system.  When the parasympathetic nervous system is “on”, the body focuses blood at the core to stimulate digestion and nourishment of internal organs.  The breathing and heart rate slows and muscles relax.  Both of these states are extremely necessary for survival and work in tandem to maintain balance in the body.  When the sympathetic system is turned “on”, the parasympathetic system is turned “off”.  The reverse is also true.  The sympathetic response (and parasympathetic) is a “global” body response, not a “local” response.  This means that if the sympathetic/parasympathetic response is turned “on”, it is true for the entire body. Due to the everyday stressors of life and sensitively conditioned nervous systems, many people spend way too much time in the sympathetic state.  This can eventually contribute to a wide variety of disease (dis-ease).  It is also common for people to get “stuck” in a fight-flight-freeze response – meaning, once the body responds to a stressful stimuli, it doesn’t know how to back down the response, even after the stimuli is gone.  You may notice you spend more time in the sympathetic state if you can relate to the body responses listed above. One of the goals of craniosacral therapy is to create a smoother transition between these two aspects of the central nervous system.  Typically, the body is invited in to a very relaxed state in a CST session which is extremely healing for the body and the mind.

Therapeutic Goals

Over the course of life, various accidents, injuries, strong emotions, beliefs, habitual thoughts, trauma, toxicity, and infection will put strain on the craniosacral system.  These strain patterns restrict the movement of the fascia and soft tissues, organs, nerves, bones, and muscle in that area.  Due to the connected nature of the human body, these localized patterns may potentially have more global effects on the body as well.

“When such stressful influences are encountered, there is a natural effort on behalf of the body to seek optimal balance.  In an ideal state, the body’s intrinsic biodynamic forces are able to dissipate the impact of any biokinetic experiences.  However, if the stress is very strong or repetitive, the capacity of the body’s biodynamic potency can be overwhelmed.  The biokinetic force them remains within the body, carried around as extra baggage.”

Michael Kern  Wisdom in the Body: The Craniosacral Approach to Essential Health

These abnormal patterns will be palpable in the craniosacral rhythm and tissues of each client.  This rhythm helps to guide the therapist over the course of treatment.  Treatment in craniosacral therapy is very individualized and may have a variety of therapeutic goals- no two processes or therapy sessions will look the same.  This is one of the beauties of CST!

**I am just beginning this series and am open to delving more specifically into anything in these posts.  Please comment or contact me with anything you would like to see explored more.