Craniosacral Therapy for Depression, Neck Pain & Headaches

CST may offer benefits for people with any of the following symptoms: anxiety, depression, migraines and/or headaches, neck and back pain, stress and tension, motor-coordination impairments, infant and childhood disorders, brain and spinal cord injuries, fatigue, TMJ, fibromyalgia, scoliosis, ADHD and many others. Below you’ll find more about five of the most common ailments that therapists use craniosacral therapy to help treat.

1. Promotes Relaxation & May Reduce Anxiety or Depression

CST is considered one type of “mindfulness-based treatment approach,” due to how it helps patients feel calmer while focusing their attention on their breath and away from their thoughts. One of the most beneficial things about craniosacral massage is that it often helps people to relax, reduce muscle tension in their body, and deal with various types of stress better.

Craniosacral therapy involves finding certain”pressure spots” or points of tension in the craniosacral system and gently manipulating them in order to reduce tension and increased relaxation. Many practitioners purposefully provide CST treatments in calm, comfortable environments that have a peaceful ambience, helping to facilitate pain relief and decrease symptoms associated with anxiety or depression. CST sessions are usually very comfortable, as the maneuvers are slight and gentle. Clients can also focus on breathing deeplyduring treatments to further help them relax by increasing activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.

A 2011 descriptive outcome study that was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine reviewed the effectiveness of Upledger CranioSacral Therapy (UCST) treatments received by 157 patients being treated for a variety of reasons. Patients sought help for reasons including dealing with headaches and migraine, neck and back pain, or anxiety and depression. The results showed that 74 percent of patients reported a “valuable improvement in their presenting problem,” 67 percent reported an improvement in general well-being and secondary symptoms tied to pain or chronic stress, and 70 percent were able to decrease their medication use or discontinue use altogether. (8)

2. May Help Lower Neck Pain

One of the difficult things about studying the effects of craniosacral therapy is that treatments are so “subtle” it is often hard to determine whether they are directly causing any measurable changes in the body. However, proponents of CST point out that just because CST’s effects cannot always be precisely measured doesn’t mean that certain benefits don’t exist. One 2015 study published in the Clinical Journal of Painthat compared CST to light touch for neck pain found evidence that CST offered more benefits. The study involved 54 blinded patients that were divided between two groups: one receiving “sham treatments” and one receiving CST.

CST patients reported significant and clinically relevant effects on pain intensity at week 8 of the study and again at week 20. At the week 20 follow-up, 78 percent of participants within the CST group reported “minimal clinical improvements” in pain intensity, while 48 percent reported other “substantial clinical benefits.” (9) It was found that there were significant between-group differences reported at the week 20 follow-up, as the CST group experienced greater differences from the start of the study regarding levels of pain when moving, functional disability, physical quality of life, anxiety and overall improvement.

Additionally, at the 8 week follow-up, pressure pain sensitivity and body awareness were significantly improved by participants in both groups (this was not reported by either group at week 20). Also importantly, no serious adverse events were reported by participants in either group.

3. Can Help Reduce Headaches

Factors such as emotional stress, tension in the neck or jaw, frowning and clenching the teeth or forehead can all contribute to headaches, as well as pain in the face, neck and shoulders. Craniosacral massage can help to reduce pressure surrounding the head and also decrease migraines or headaches tied to high stress levels.

A 2012 randomized clinical trial that was published in the journal BMC Complimentary and Alternative Therapy tested the effects of CST on migraine pain intensity and frequency over an 8 week period. Adults with moderate to severe migraines were randomly assigned to two groups: those receiving 8 weekly CST treatments and those receiving 8 weekly low-strength static magnet therapy (LSSM) treatments.

Results showed that both treatment groups appeared to benefit from their treatments, but that the CST group experienced greater reductions in mean headache hours per day 30 days following treatment. A between-group difference was also found at the 4 week follow-up point, when the CST group reported greater significant differences in headache-related disability, headache intensity and medication use. By the end of the 8 weeks, headache intensity was reduced more in the CST group compared to the LSSM group, however the difference was not statistically significant. After 8 weeks of treatment, pain-killing medication use decreased substantially in both groups. (10) 

4. May Help Manage Fibromyalgia Symptoms

Findings from a 2011 study that was published in Evidence Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine points to the fact that craniosacral therapy can contribute to improvements in quality of life and decreased anxiety in patients with fibromyalgia. The study included 84 patients that had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia who were randomly assigned to either an intervention group receiving craniosacral therapy for 25 weeks, or a placebo group that was receiving simulated treatments with disconnected ultrasound for 25 weeks. Measurements included changes in anxiety, pain, sleep quality, depression and quality of life at baseline and then again at 10 minutes, 6 months and 1-year following treatment.

The results showed significantly greater improvements in fibromyalgia symptoms, including anxiety, pain, quality of life and sleep quality in the CST intervention group compared to the placebo group, both after the treatment period and again at the six-month follow-up. One year after treatment improvements in sleep quality were still reported, while other improvements were not, which suggests that this type of fibromyalgia treatment needs to be ongoing in order to have the most impact. (11)

5. May Be Beneficial for Autism

The use of hands-on therapy approaches for the treatment of symptoms associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) remains controversial, but there is some evidence that patients respond well to mind-body practices including healing touch, “energy medicine” and biologically based manipulative practices. (12) A preliminary study that appeared in the Journal of Bodywork and Manipulative Therapies introduced craniosacral therapy as one possible treatment option for symptoms of ASD based on findings that CST is already recommended by therapists/doctors due to how studies have found positive responses.

The authors of the study concluded that “there is worthy cause to further investigate how CST benefits Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).” (13) The combination of conventional practice and complementary/alternative techniques is often called “Integrative Medicine.” More research is still needed, but it’s possible that CST may help to reduce symptoms associated with ASD including irritability, sensory abnormalities, difficulties with motor coordination, or hyperactivity by positively influencing the nervous system and promoting relaxation.


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