By Maria Larrain MPhil BOst DPO PgC ACE (clin ed)


What is cranial osteopathy?


Cranial osteopathy is a gentle osteopathic treatment used to release deep-seated tension from your body.


‘Cranial’ osteopathy is a misnomer because the treatment is applied to your whole body and not just the head. It can be a very effective way of treating a variety of problems suffered by people of all ages gently.


What does a cranial osteopath do that is different?


Cranial osteopathy is not ‘different’ osteopathy because osteopathy is a set of principles. The principles are the same, but the application is different.


Osteopaths who train in the cranial field have extensive postgraduate training to use ‘cranial’ effectively. It may look like osteopaths are ‘laying hands’ but there is more involved than simply touching the body.


The US osteopath William G Sutherland who first started using this approach called it touching with “thinking, knowing, and feeling fingers”.


Cranial osteopathy and ‘cranial sacral therapy’ (CST) differ in that CST can be used by people who are not osteopaths and do not have the same degree of training and skills as osteopaths.


A cranial osteopath works with their hands in a gentle way that is suitable for complex conditions and is a whole-body approach for people who are delicate, either due to age or illness, or simply because it is their preference.


Osteopaths always use techniques according to the person’s needs. Many osteopaths specialise in sports injuries or treatment of viscera. Cranial osteopathy crosses all specialties and is suitable for everyone, even injured athletes.


How does cranial treatment feel?


The patient can feel heat or pressure, either from the osteopath’s hands or in other parts of the body. Sometimes people feel a pleasant tingling sensation or waves of sensation in parts of their bodies. Some people report a fleeting increase in pain during treatment that wanes as the session progresses.


Most patients feel that tension is reduced and then experience a deep sense of relaxation. You may become sleepy during and after treatment. Even as you lie still, your body works very hard to adjust to feeling different.


Although cranial osteopathy is gentle you can still experience some post-treatment discomfort for 24-48 hours, but this is unusual and only if there is significant inflammation present.


Inflammation can take a few days, sometimes even 2-6 weeks to subside in sub-acute cases.


How does cranial osteopathy work?


This is the million-dollar question and our models of explanation and how osteopaths train in the cranial field have changed over the years since Dr William Sutherland.


We know from neuroscience and anthropology that human beings respond to touch. Our nervous systems and bodies are primed for feeling safety and space for healing with gentle touch. When a baby cries it is soothed by its caregivers through touch. When a pet is distressed, it calms down with touch. If a child falls and hits their knee, the first thing we do is touch it to calm the knee and the child down. We do this instinctively. Touch heals because it is soothing for our nervous system.


When the osteopath applies touch, it is with “knowing, thinking, feeling fingers”. We sense for areas where tension is held in the body and which areas are not functioning harmoniously. To allow the body to let go, we understand the need for safety, space, and connection under our hands. It is our nervous system that holds on to the tone in the body or tissues. When our nervous system calms, we release tension.


When tension is released, it helps with blood flow and drainage so local and systemic physiological balance can be restored. These are the core principles of osteopathy: The body constantly strives to heal itself; it functions as a unit; tissues need healthy blood flow, venous drainage, and adequate nerve supply to function optimally.


Cranial osteopathy is gentle and works on the soft tissues, not bone manipulation as some people believe. The approach harnesses the body’s therapeutic potential in our body’s aim to self-heal and self-correct. The osteopath feels for which areas of the body require attention to assist this process. This is why we call it an ‘indirect’ approach. We are not pressing on anything, but merely supporting the body with our hands in a way that supports the body. This is why people report cranial osteopathy to be relaxing. It simply allows you to ‘let go’. If we were just mechanically pressing on parts of the body, nothing will happen. Hence it takes time and training to be able to use this technique therapeutically and effectively.


What can cranial osteopathy help with?


If your condition is amenable to osteopathy, we treat your condition. Otherwise, osteopaths treat people with a condition to maximise function and wellbeing. Many people have osteopathy alongside their usual medical treatment, including physiotherapy.


Using our osteopathic principles, we can help with anything that a person would seek an osteopath for which is usually pain. However, some people find it helpful when they suffer from inability to relax or symptoms related to head and neck, or digestive issues.


We treat people of all ages, including babies.


If you would like to speak to us about how Cranial osteopathy might help you, please call Maria Larrain and book a 15-minute consultation at no cost.


Further reading:

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 Barlafante, G. (2015). A Multicenter, Randomized, Controlled Trial of Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment on Preterms. PLOS ONE, 10(5), p.e0127370.

Cerritelli, F., Verzella, M., Cicchitti, L., D’Alessandro, G. and Vanacore, N. (2016). The paradox of sham therapy and placebo effect in osteopathy. Medicine, 95(35), p.e4728.

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