by Thomas Attlee.
Cranio-sacral therapy and the treatment of
common childhood conditions
Cranio-sacral therapy is a comprehensive therapy which can be used
effectively for the treatment of many conditions at all ages. It is
extremely gentle, non-invasive, and causes no discomfort or
disturbance to the client; nor does it have any risks or adverse side
effects. It is, for this reason, particularly suitable for the
treatment of babies and children.
In treating the cranio-sacral system, the practitioner is seeking
out and identifying areas of restriction, compression or tension
through the body which may in turn be impeding proper function of
organs, muscles, nerves, blood vessels and body tissues in general.
These restrictions may be the result of injury, infection,
inflammation, erncstional tension or underlying pathologies. They may
also be caused by the compressive pressures of the birth process.
How cranio-sacral therapy works
The cranio-sacral system comprises the membranes (meninges) which
surround the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), the
bones of the cranium and sacrum which attach to these membranes, the
fascia which radiates out from the membranes to all parts of the body
(enveloping every nerve and nerve pathway), and the cercbro-spinal
fluid, which is produced within the central nervous system and
transmitted via the neurological pathways, throughout the body. All of
these structures pulsate in a symmetrical, balanced and rhythmic
motion (the cranial rhythm) which also reflects out through the fascia
to all parts of the body.
Each organ, muscle or tissue is linked to a precise area of the
cranio-sacral system through its nerve pathway and associated fascial
connections. This connection provides the pathway for a two-way
process of interaction through which dysfunction can be diagnosed and
proper function restored; the dysfunction reflects from the tissues to
the cranio-sacral system, and the corrective forces from the system
are reflected back out to the affected area. Restrictions, blockages
or dysfunctions of any kind anywhere in the body are reflected as
disturbances of rhythm and symmetry in the cranio-sacral system, or
its abnormal pulls and tensions within the body tissues. These can be
identified, traced to their sources, and diagnosed by the
Treatment consists of the practitioner placing his or her hands very
gently on the body, identifying the areas of restriction or tension,
and following the subtle internal pulls and twists manifested by the
cranio-sacral system until points of resistance are encountered and
released, thereby enabling the tissues to return to proper healthy
futiction. The therapist seeks to restore balance to the cranio-sacral
system, thereby enabling it to restore proper function to the affected
part of the body.
Treatment is generally soothing, comforting and pleasant, and
creates a sense of ease, calmness and well-being. Babies can be
treated while cradled in the mothers arms and even better, while
asleep. There is no need to disturb the child by undressing them,
since the cranio-sacral patterns can be clearly felt through clothes
(or even nappies).
One area to which cranio-sacral therapy is particularly relevant is
birth trauma, the effects of which can cause many common childhood
conditions, from minor ailments such as glue car to much more severe
disabilities such as spasticity.
During the birth process, the babys head is forcefully
compressed as it twists through thc narrow birth canal. To allow
passage, the cranium of a new-born baby is not a solid, bony structure
but a soft membranous balloon, designed to adapt readily and pliably
to the rigorous pressures of the birth process.
However, intense compression of this delicate structure over many
hours, as is often the case, pushes the bones of the cranium up
against each other and distorts the shape of the head. This is normal,
and unavoidable, but if any of the cranial bones remain at all
distorted, or if they fail to release completely, the distortions may
prevent the proper formation of the skull, and thereby affect
development of the brain or impinge on associated structures such as
nerves and blood vessels.
The bodys inherent self-healing powers are usually able to
remould the compressed cranium back into its normal shape. However
this innate remoulding is not always completely successful; and the
degree to which the restrictions and compressions are resolved varies
considerably from individual to individual. If the labour has been
long and hard, with the baby stuck in the birth canal with its head
engaged, the distortions are likely to be more firmly imprinted and
less readily resolved by nature. Even where the birth process has been
relatively straightforward, restrictions or compressions may persist
and these may in turn inhibit full and proper growth and development.
The effects of these cranial bone restrictions will vary
considerably. The most severe cases can lead to cerebral palsy,
autism, or epilepsy; less severe cases may result in dyslexia,
learning difficulties, hyperactivity, and squint. It can also be
linked with other minor common childhood complaints, such as allergies
and asthma, as well as general health and well-being.
Recurrent ear infections, otitis media, and glue car are very common
in early childhood. and are all suitable for treatment by cranio-sacral
therapy. They arise from an accunsulation and stagnation of fluids in
the middle ear, behind the ear drum, which leads to infection (often
recurrent) and could result in partial or even total hearing loss. The
stagnation indicates lack of proper drainage from the middle ear of
the accumulated fluids, which should normally pass via the eustachian
tube (or auditory tube) running from the middle ear to empty into the
nasopharyngeal cavity at the back of the mouth.
Constriction of the eustachian tube may occur as a result of
compression or distortion during the birth process; blockage of the
tube may arise due to the accumulation of mucus. Treatment of the
compressions and tensions in the surrounding area by cranio-sacral
therapy will generally remove the constrictions, clear the
obstruction, and ensure the free drainage of fluids. Successful
treatment relieves the immediate symptoms, restores proper hearing,
and therefore proper learning and speech development, and reduces the
risk of total hearing loss. It can also reduce the need for
antibiotics, and the invasive processes of inserting grommets and
other ear, nose and throat operations, including tonsillectomy.
Colic (and associated ailments) is another condition in young babies
for which cranio-sacral therapy is appropriate, and for which it has
been found to be effective. Classic colic involves prolonged
inconsolable screaming for several hours, with no apparent cause,
generally in the early evening. Accompanying symptoms include
regurgitation of feeds, excessive wind, inability to bring up wind,
projectile vomiting, and obvious pain. In many cases drugs are
prescribed, but these are rarely effective in resolving the problem
and may have undesirable direct side effects, such as digestive
disturbances, diarrhoea or constipation, and latent effects on the
immune system and underlying constitution. It is always preferable to
avoid the use of drugs with young babies unless absolutely necessary.
In very severe cases of colic, which have reached the state of pyloric
stenosis (where the pylorus has narrowed to the degree that food
cannot pass from the stomach into the small intestine), an operation
is often performed to relieve the stenosis.
To treat most cases of colic or colic-like conditions, the
cranio-sacral therapist concentrates on the principal areas: the
cranial base and the solar plexus region. The first, the cranial base,
concerns the occipital bone and its relationship with the atlas -
vertebra (Cl). The cranial base is the area most susceptible to
compression and distortion during the birth process, due to its
location and the direction of the pressure exerted on this area by the
babys passage through the birth canal. It is also an area of
vital importance to the overall health and functioning of all
individuals, as it is close to many other important structures. These
include the jugular foramen, a hole in the base of the skull between
the occiput and the temporal bones, through which passes the vagus
nerve, or nerve X. This provides the main parasympathetic nerve supply
to most of the digestive system; its compression can lead to
over-stimulation of the nerve, causing persistent spasm of the
digestive organs and, consequently, colic.
Also located at the cranial base is another important structure: the
superior cervical sympathetic ganghion. This is the uppermost and
largest ganglion of the chain which runs alongside the vertebral
column providing sympathetic nerve supply to the viscera. Compression
or pressure on the superior cervical sympathetic ganglion may lead to
sympathetic stimulation throughout the whole nervous system, resulting
in hyperstimulation of all the viscera, and generalised
over-stimulation, restlessness, tension and hyperactivity. This will
be particularly manifest in the plexi, including the solar plexus,
which may then create tension and spasm in the digestive system and
The simultaneous stimulation of both the vagus (parasympathetic) and
plexi (sympathetic) nervous system is particularly troublesome to the
digestive system, due to their conflicting functions: the
parasympathetic supply aims to increase digestive activity and gut
motility; while the sympathetic supply seeks to close down the
digestive activity and shut the food pathways in the gut such as the
cardiac sphincter and the pyloric sphincter. The result is conflict,
obstruction and spasm, and the many manifestations of colic.
Increased sympathetic nerve stimulation will also lead to increased
stimulation of the adrenal medulla. Adrenalin is released and this
causes further generalised stimulation, tension, restlessness and
hyperactivity, as well as creating a vicious circle of
Equally significant to the incidence and treatment of colic and
associated conditions is the local region of the solar plexus, the
umbilicus, the diaphragm and the pylorus.
The solar plexus is, in addition to stimulation by pressure on the
cranial base, also liable to be stimulated by shock, trauma or
distress. This is something with which many adults will be familiar,
but babies, with their more sensitive systems, are more responsive,
and more susceptible to the digestive disturbances which ensue.
Tension is also widely recognised (both in adults and in children) as
manifesting in the diaphragm, and this again is all the more evident
in babies. Tension in the diaphragm causes restriction of other,
associated structures, and in particular constriction of the
oesophagus as it passes through the diaphragm into the stomach.
Tension can also affect the function of the pylorus, through which
food passes from the stomach into the small intestine.
Constriction of these digestive passages is of greater consequence
to small babies precisely because they are smaller, and the passages
are therefore narrower so that tension and constriction easily lead to
pain and difficulty in passing food or liquid, or even to complete
obstruction. If left untreated, tension in the diaphragm, solar plexus
and cranial base may well predispose to subsequent disease later in
life: most notably such conditions as duodenal ulcer or hiatus hernia.
It is perhaps often assumed that because babies are not rational or
verbal they do not experience shock and trauma in the same way as
adults, or to think that a baby going through the natural process of
birth and being lovingly cared for should not be experiencing shock
and trauma. But the process of birth is itself often difficult and
traumatic for both mother and baby. If the birth is difficult, the
labour prolonged, or the baby stuck in the birth canal for many hours,
then the shock and trauma absorbed into the system may be immense.
Arrival in the outside world may induce further shock and trauma as
the baby emerges suddenly into a busy, brightly lit, and often noisy
environment after seclusion in the womb. The process of being washed
and weighed and the immediate handling and aftercare of the baby are
also a dramatic change from the previous nine months. Ideally every
baby should be allowed to come into the world slowly, be placed
immediately on the mothers breast, and allowed to acclimatise
gradually to its new environment before being subjected to the less
comfortable practical processes of life after birth.
A particularly common cause of shock is the premature cutting of the
umbilical cord. The umbilical cord is the lifeline through which the
baby has received all its oxygen and nutrition throughout its time in
the womb. As the baby emerges into the world, the cord continues to
provide these essential nutrients for several minutes after the birth.
The sudden severance of this lifeline can come as an unnecessary
shock, which is then absorbed into the solar plexus and umbilical
areas and manifests as a tension and tightness in the cranio-sacral
system around these areas (with consequent effects on the surrounding
viscera as already described).
It is also very common to find a profound sense of shock held in the
solar plexus of babies born by caesarean section. This shock is
incurred at the time of the incision, when the fluid pressure within
the womb changes very suddenly, causing both physical and emotional
shock to the baby. This frequently manifests as a sense of seizing up
throughout the body; as contraction, closing down and tightness in the
head, and as tension and tightness in the solar plexus.
In the case of enforced caesarean section, when the babys head
has been engaged and under pressure for a prolonged and stressful
period and subsequently caesarean section is performed out of
necessity, then the baby suffers the worst of both worlds. It is
subjected both to severe pressures on the cranium and to the shock
effects of the caesarean section.
Shock may result from many other physical and emotional causes,
including tension picked up from the mother, and other underlving
stresses and tensions between the parents, in the environment, or in
family relationships in general.
Treatment by cranio-sacral therapy can also be effective for a wide
range of other conditions common in childhood: mucus congestion,
catarrh, ear, nose and throat problems, constipation and diarrhoea,
obsessional behaviour, personality disorders, and tantrums. All these
can be related to cranial boric restrictions, as can hyperactivity,
head-banging vhich is often an attempt by the child to release
uncomfortable cranial bone restrictions and forceful sucking of
the thumb and other objects (particularly when pushed hard against the
roof of the mouth), which may reflect restriction in the bones of the
palate or between the vomer and the sphenoid bone. Childhood
torticollis, involving excessive muscle tone in the sterno-mastoid
muscle causing twisting of the neck, is frequently operated on, but
may be due to compression of the jugular foramen, with consequent
pressure and hyper-stimulation of the spinal accessory nerve which
supplies the sterno-mastoid muscle.
Asymmetries of the bones which form the orbit can be the cause of
squints and other visual problems. Distortions of the sphenoid bone
may constrict the foramina and fissures at the back of the orbit
through which nerves and blood vessels supplying the eyes must travel,
thereby affecting vision, shortsightedness, squints and lazy eyes.
Autism has been shown by recent medical research in Canada to be
associated with reduced blood supply to the temporal and frontal lobes
of the brain. An association has also been made between autism and
restricted mobility of the temporal and frontal bones,restricting
blood flow to these areas of the brain.
Cerebral palsy is generally considered to be due to brain damage.
However cranio-sacral therapy has been shown to be remarkably effective
in treating some cases of cerebral palsy, even in teenagers) In these
cases, the cause may lie, not in actual brain damage, but in severe
restriction and compression of the cranial bones, preventing proper
growth and development of an otherwise undamaged brain.
Another serious disorder which can be treated by cranio-sacral
therapy is meningitis. Inflammation of
the meninges often occurs in more minor forms than full blown
meningitis; these are usually described as meningism, or more
frequently not diagnosed at all. These lesser forms are often the
result of minor infections such as colds, flu, ear infections and such
like spreading to the meninges. The effects, however, both in childsen
and in adults are not necessarily minor, and can range from persistent
headaches, neck pain, nausea, vomiting and visual disturbances to
chronic hyperactivity, tantrums, exhaustion, debilitation or severe
personality disorders, depending on the extent and severity of the
inflammation. Cranio-sacral therapy, by directly treating the
meninges, can be very effective in treating the aftereffects of such
Many other symptoms and conditions can be diagnosed and treated,
including floppiness, spasticity, tension, lack of response, lack of
sucking reflex, feeding difficulties, feeding from one breast only
(which may be due to cervical and cranial base restrictions resulting
in discomfort for the baby on turning its head to the affected side).
Treatment at the earliest possible opportunity is highly advisable.
Not only will conditions respond more readily the sooner they are
treated, and less readily the longer they have been there, but also
the cranium and the body structure are constantly growing, fusing and
consolidating into the patterns of growth imprinted on them, and
become increasingly solidified and resistant to treatment with time.
Response to treatment is generally fairly rapid, but will vary
according to the age of the child and the chronicity of the condition.
In young babies, the response should normally be very quick; as the
child gets older, and consequently the cranial restrictions more
established and consolidated, then several treatments may be required.
It should also be remembered that the overt symptoms may be an
indication of more complex underlying patterns of restriction and
asymmetry in the cranium, the cranio-sacral system and the structure
generally (which have yet to manifest as symptoms), and further
treatment to resolve these underlying imbalances may be recommended in
order to prevent the recurrence of the current condition or the
subsequent emergence of other symptoms and conditions.
While treatment of any pattern is possible throughout life into old
age, the treatment process will take much longer where the condition
has become established, and a complete resolution becomes less likely
as time goes on. Early treatment and checking are therefore important,
not simply for the treatment of current minor ailments, but primarily
to ensure the complete resolution of any underlying distortions which
might have longer-term and more debilitating consequences later in
life by which time the restrictions may be too consolidated to
achieve a complete release. For instance, dyslexia may not become
apparent to the parents (or doctors) until school work falls behind
by which time the condition has become consolidated and will take
longer to resolve, when it could have been diagnosed by a
cranio-sacral therapist at birth and corrected immediately.
Midwives and health visitors are increasingly seeking alternative
ways to explain and resolve infant and childhood conditions.
Cranio-sacral therapy and other such complementary approaches offer
alternative ways of approaching problems and resolving many common,
troublesome and distressing ailments, drastically reducing the need
for drugs and surgery and offering general improvement in health and
It is to be hoped that cranio-sacral therapy will become an integral
part of every maternity ward, and a standard part of the training for
all health and medical professionals working with pregnant women,
young babies and children.
- George MS. Costs DC Kouris K, Ring H, ElI P. Cerebral blood flow
abnormalities in adults with infantile autism. Journal of
Nervous and Mental Disease 1992; 180,7: 413-417.
- Upledger JE, Vredevoogd JD. Cranio-sacral therapy. Seattle:
Eastlands Press, 1981.
- 3 Arbuckle B E. Cranial aspects of emergencies of - the newborn.
American Osteopathic Association Journal, 1948.
Reproduced from The Health Visitor, Volume 67 Number 7 July 1994.