Craniosacral therapy (CST) is a type of alternative therapy that uses touch to palpate the synarthrodial joints of the cranium. It is often promoted as a cure for all sorts of health conditions, but is, of course, complete nonsense based on fundamental misconceptions about the physiology of the human skull. It was invented in the 1970s, following a familiar pattern, by John Upledger, an osteopathic physician, though it has its roots in an older form of pseudoscience, cranial osteopathy.
CST is, of course, pure pseudoscience. Medical research – like here – has found no good evidence that either CST or cranial osteopathy has any health benefit, and it may be harmful, particularly if used on children or infants. Moreover, it is founded on basic assumptions that are demonstrably false; to say that the core idea of CST, that there is a craniosacral rhythm, cannot be scientifically supported is an understatement – tests show that CST practitioners cannot in fact identify the purported craniosacral pulse – and practitioners notably produce conflicting and mutually exclusive diagnoses of the same patient. Like other alternative and new-age-inspired therapies, CST draws heavily on indefinable, pseudoreligious concepts such as energy (in the new-age sense), harmony, balance, rhythm, and flow – typical vitalistic nomenclature that in their application bears striking resemblances to medical ideas and practices in medieval Europe, even if practitioners often try to describe the characteristics as “non-Western”. Subjective validation is a powerful tool for CST practitioners, however: Who needs evidence, accuracy and facts when you’ve got anecdotes? (Yes, there have been some tooth fairy science-studies sympathetic to CST carried out, but even these fail to find anything to recommend the technique). There is a good, short introduction here, and even the Wikipedia article on CST is fairly decent.
Upledger himself, however, has become something of a celebrity in alternative medicine circles, and versions of CST have become popular among certain groups of chiropractors and “alternative”-sympathetic dentists (among the latter, CST has been particularly promoted by one Viola Frymann). According to Upledger, CST “works with natural and unique rhythms of our different body systems to pinpoint and correct source problems,” which is incorrect, but the basis for his apparently somewhat successful Upledger Institute of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. According to the institute website, CST complements “the body’s natural healing processes” and can cure almost anything, from autism to learning disorders to colic and neurovascular or immune disorders. It can even, predictably, boost your immune system. Indeed, CST for colic has apparently been a thing in the UK, where parents pay £30–£50 per treatment (you may need up to three) for osteopaths to lightly tickle their babies heads. Despite the simplicity of the technique you absolutely cannot do it yourself – the touches are very soft and have to be applied to very specific points. And the touching ostensibly make permanent changes, but not to the shape of the skull itself because that would be measurable (and bad).
Of course, CST was only the first stop on Upledger’s journey in the world of quackery, and he quickly moved on to things like energy cysts, sound healing, healing energy that could be transmitted from one hand to the other through the patient’s body, and dolphin therapy (dolphins touch the therapist and the therapist touches the patient). His books CranoSacral Therapy: Touchstone of Natural Healing and Your Inner Physician and You: CranioSacral Therapy and SomatoEmotional Release (reviewed here) go far beyond CST, with one of their most striking ideas being the not-entirely-coherent ideas of patients’ “Inner Physician” that Upledger can communicate with to help treat you. One such inner physician apparently appeared to a patient in the form of a seagull and asked to be introduced as “Mermaid.” In another case, Upledger was caring for a four-month-old French baby who was “as floppy as a rag doll”; although the baby had never been exposed to English, Upledger decided to see if the baby’s “Inner Physician” would communicate with him via the craniosacral system in English, and it did: “I requested aloud in English that the craniosacral rhythm stop if the answer to a question was ‘yes’ and not stop if the answer was ‘no.’ The rhythm stopped for about ten seconds [remember that he is unable to measure it]. I took this as an indication that I was being understood. I then asked if it was possible during this session for the rhythm to stop only in response to my question and not for other reasons, such as body position, etc., The rhythm stopped again. I was feeling more confident. I proceeded.” Eventually he determined that the baby was exposed to toxins, but he nevertheless managed to heal it of toxins through consultation with the baby’s “Inner Physicians”. Yes, it’s … mediumship, but we like to think that even hardened loons who think they talk to the dead would be somewhat concerned about Upledger’s application of their ideas.
The connection between CST and dolphin therapy has been further developed, by one Rebecca Goff, into AquaCranial therapy, which is a good candidate for constituting the zenith of New Age nonsense.
Diagnosis: Garbled insanity, but apparently it’s possible to package it in a manner that makes it appealing to certain groups of people. Upledger is a true believer, surfing the pink, fluffy clouds of the astral plane, powered by subtle energies according to the Law of Attraction. He does have significant influence in the alternative movement, though, and his recommendations have had darker consequences than just parting people with their money for nothing.
UPDATE: Upledger seems, possibly, to have passed away.