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Craniosacral Therapy—the Hands-On Way to Decrease Pain (and Stress)

Black woman having a head massage
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Objectively, I'm a fantastic candidate for craniosacral therapy (CST)—a light-touch bodywork treatment that works to reduce "restrictions" in the body that can contribute to the buildup of tension and chronic pain. Or if we want to get really technical, "palpate the synarthrodial joints of the cranium and sacrum"—aka your head, pelvis, and spine. (Don't fret, more on the therapy's specifics in a few.) But back to why I tried it.

Recently, my body has felt more like a human punching bag and less like the vibrant, energetic, and healthy 25-year-old woman it's supposed to. My sleep has been poor, my diet is not fabulous, stress levels—eek—I'd rather not. Additionally, I've been dealing with some not-so-nice side effects of PCOS, which is still a new, somewhat intimidating, diagnosis for me. And while I typically only get migraines around the turn of the season, I've started to get them more frequently. (Again, I blame the stress, sleep, coffee cycle I've continued to perpetuate.)

What Is Craniosacral Therapy?

Craniosacral therapy is a hands-on, light-touch bodywork treatment that works to reduce "restrictions" in the body that can contribute to the buildup of tension and chronic pain.

So when Ritual Vitamins editor Victoria Hoff (the all-knowing of all things worth knowing in the health and wellness space) brought up CST, it piqued my interest, and after scanning the list of conditions it supposedly treats and alleviates, I was giving my laptop physical head nods—sign me up. The goal: As someone who is generally skeptical of any type of bodywork therapy other than a hurts-so-good deep-tissue massage, I would try it out. Would it actually help ease my migraines, stress levels, and the minor chronic pain I get from a touch of scoliosis? I was doubtful but prepared to find out. So I booked an appointment for a 60-minute CST treatment at Exhale in Santa Monica to hopefully reap all the treatment's benefits.

Keep scrolling for my full craniosacral therapy review.

What Is Craniofacial Therapy?

First things first, let's unpack CST a bit. As my therapist told me before our session, CST was developed back in the 1970s by osteopathic physician John E. Upledger and has since accumulated a pretty impressive fan base. (Notably, Brooke Shields has credited the treatment for curing her TMJ.) According to Exhale's website, the therapy "will clear blockages around the spine, skull, and surrounding connective tissue to restore craniosacral rhythm" through gentle pressure (what my therapist describes as roughly the weight of a nickel) and barely detectable rhythmic pulses.

Looking for something a bit more scientific? "Craniosacral therapy is an extremely gentle hands-on therapy that treats restrictions, pain, and dysfunctions/challenges anywhere on the body," explains Robert Harris, RMT, of Toronto's Cranial Therapy Centre. "It utilizes a gentle motion that is felt throughout the whole body to assess and find where there are deep or subtle restrictions that are compromising one's well being."

Benefits of Craniofacial Therapy

• Eases muscle pains

• Relaxes the body and mind

• Helps to manage headaches and haw pain

CST can help with all manner of pains. "[CST] is able to help with muscle pains, spinal and joint alignments, headaches, jaw pain, and many neurological conditions. It is very helpful with the various symptoms of post-concussion syndrome, with recovery and optimizing the brain's function," says Harris.

It can also address issues for a range of people, from young to old. "Craniosacral therapy is extremely helpful for newborns, providing help with any sleep issues, colic, other feeding challenges, and overall development," he adds. Perhaps the best part, though, is how supremely relaxing a craniofacial therapy session can be. The treatments are "felt through the whole nervous system," says Harris. "Most people will doze at some point in the session and by treatment's end there is usually a significant beneficial change to their initial symptoms and presenting condition."

What to Expect from Craniofacial Therapy

Harris explains a typical CST session thusly: "A person stays dressed and is usually on their back for the hour-long session. They would feel an immediate easing of pain and stress and there would be a sense of opening and space coming into any areas that had been tight and uncomfortable."

Don't cringe, but immediately after arriving at Exhale, I felt like I could indeed… exhale. It was the middle of the day on a Thursday, and stepping into the bungalow-esque vibe of the spa, which is nestled neatly into Santa Monica's infamous Fairmont Miramar Hotel, felt like a breath of fresh air. I checked in, grabbed some tea, and awaited the treatment. Shortly, I was greeted by my therapist and we began to talk through the therapy. Apparently, once most guests realize CST isn't a massage, they change their mind and request a different service. So after assuring her CST was what I really, truly wanted, she had me lie face-up on the table (which was heated—my favorite), close my eyes, and relax. 

With a barely detectable pressure, the therapist started at my feet, holding the soles for a few calm moments. Then, she moved back up to the top of my body, lightly applying pressure to my head, neck, back, and eventually, my pelvic area for what felt like roughly 10-minute intervals per body part. Now, when I say pressure, I don't mean a gripping or kneading sensation associated with other bodywork therapies like massage. Essentially, it felt as if she was simply propping up each area with the lightest touch physically possible. And I have to admit, my initial reaction was something akin to seriously, this is it?

And then the magic set in. I can't really explain it, but I would say about 20 or 30 minutes into the hour, I began to feel blissfully relaxed and at peace. And let me tell you, that's not the norm for 2 p.m. on a Thursday when both my phone and laptop (i.e. my lifelines) are being held captive outside of my reach. I don't think I actually fell asleep, but it was as if I reached such an intense state of relaxation that I was practically on the cusp of the most intense REM I've probably had in weeks. And seriously, she was barely touching me—the pressure was so slight—I could hardly believe it.

Side Effects

Once the hour was up, I felt completely discombobulated. Not in a bad way, per se, but roughly how I would imagine a grizzly bear feels after a long winter of hibernation. Groggy but also rejuvenated, relaxed, and settled—if that makes sense. No, it didn't miraculously cure my anxiety, stress, or fatigue, but I did go to bed that night feeling a heck of a lot better—which, in my mind, speaks volumes.

After the treatment, I did some more poking around the internet and read some CST reviews which mentioned some patients reporting feelings of ultra-intense relaxation after the treatment, which then led to lightheadedness (both of which have been attributed to an alleged increase in endorphins, or the endocannabinoid system.) Thinking back, I realized I did feel a bit lightheaded after the treatment and even a touch nauseous (but then again, a 15-minute Uber in L.A. will do that to you).

Aftercare

That groggy feeling might be pretty minor, but it's a signal that your body needs to rehydrate, explains Harris. "Some people will report being light-headed or slightly woozy after a treatment, as there is a natural, slight drop in blood pressure," he says. "Drinking water before and staying hydrated throughout a session will help prevent this and is important to gain the maximum benefit from a treatment. A person's need for fluid dramatically increases during a session. This is due to the responses the body and nervous system go through while in restoration and healing mode."

The Final Takeaway

My therapist told me that there's a wide variety of reactions, and some people require far more frequent treatments in order to feel any type of physical difference. So even though one therapy session most likely isn't enough to mark any significant changes to my well-being, I'm definitely intrigued and already considering giving CST another shot.

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