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

relaxed person receiving a massage

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Objectively, I'm a fantastic candidate for craniosacral therapy—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, it's meant to "palpate the synarthrodial joints of the cranium and sacrum"—aka your head, pelvis, and spine—according to the Upledger Institute, a CST clinic. (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.)

So when Ritual 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.

Is craniosacral therapy right for you? Keep scrolling for my full craniosacral therapy review.

Meet the Expert

  • Vivianne Garcia-Tuñón is an 18 year-licensed massage therapist in the state of Florida with a craniosacral therapy certification from the Upledger Institute. She is also the vice president of development at The Well, a wellness club in New York. 
  • Robert Harris is a registered massage therapist, craniosacral therapist and co-founder of the Cranial Therapy Centre, the most established CST treatment and training center in Canada.

What Is Craniosacral Therapy?

massage craniosacral

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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.

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.)  "CST works with the craniosacral system, comprised of the cranium, spine, and sacrum," says craniosacral therapist Garcia-Tuñón. "The craniosacral system is all connected by the dura mater, a membrane of the body's deepest fascia, and is bathed by the cerebral spinal fluid creating a pulse that is six to 12 beats per minute."

Garcia-Tuñón explains that this pulse is referred to as the craniosacral rhythm. She says that CST therapists are trained to look for imbalances in that rhythm, looking for rate, symmetry, vibration, and quality.

"Craniosacral therapy is an extremely gentle hands-on therapy that treats restrictions, pain, and dysfunctions/challenges anywhere on the body," explains registered massage therapist Harris. "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 Craniosacral Therapy

  • Decreases stress
  • Relieves neck and back pain
  • Reduces anxiety

For those dealing with a lot of stress in their daily life, Garcia-Tuñón says that CST can be very helpful. "Benefits of craniosacral therapy can include an immediate relief of accumulated stress, profound feelings of calmness and relaxation, and renewed body awareness," she says. "CST can also identify other areas of tension and imbalance through the craniosacral rhythm."

In fact, Harris adds that because the treatments are "felt through the whole nervous system," you should not be surprised if you get so relaxed you fall asleep during the treatment. "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."

CST 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," Harris says. Garcia-Tuñón agrees that CST is helpful for all ages, "especially C-section babies that don't get the deep vaginal squeeze at birth."

"A few contraindications include recent cranial injury, fractures and open wounds in the craniosacral area, aneurysms, acute infection of the craniosacral membranes, herniation of the medulla oblongata, and recent brain surgery," she adds. Talk to your doctor if you are unsure before you start CST.

Garcia-Tuñón says there is a list of conditions CST can help treat:

  • Stress
  • Acute and chronic headaches
  • PMS
  • Depression
  • Anxiety and mood disorders
  • Neck and head tension
  • PTSD
  • Nerve damage
  • IBS
  • Acid reflux
  • Lymphedema
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • A variety of brain dysfunctions, including motor skills and degenerative disorders
  • TMJ
  • Deep-seated tension

As you can see, CST can be helpful for many conditions. "[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.

How to Prepare for a Craniosacral Therapy Session

Craniosacral therapy is performed while you're fully clothed, so you'll want to make sure you are wearing something that you feel comfortable in. Loose-fitting clothing or even soft yoga pants and a comfy tee are great options.

What to Expect During a Craniosacral Therapy Session

person gets massage at spa

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Harris explains a typical CST session thusly: "A person stays dressed and is usually on their back for the hourlong 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 spa, which is nestled neatly into Santa Monica's famed Fairmont Miramar Hotel, felt like a breath of fresh air. I checked in, grabbed some tea, and awaited the treatment. Soon 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 minds 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'd probably had in weeks. And seriously, she was barely touching me—the pressure was so slight I could hardly believe it.

Potential Side Effects

After my treatment, I did some more poking around on the internet and read some CST reviews that mentioned some patients reporting feelings of ultra-intense relaxation after the treatment, which then led to light-headedness (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 light-headed after the treatment and even a touch nauseous (but, then again, a 15-minute Uber in L.A. will do that to you).

Adds Garcia-Tuñón, "It is normal for the guest to have a deep emotional release in the way of crying, tension, or internal body noises. The unwinding can resurface emotions that are stored deep within the body."

The Cost

A typical CST session can range anywhere from $70–$170 per session, depending on where you live and who your therapist is. So it's definitely not a huge wallet buster, but it might be something you want to save up for if you plan on having multiple sessions (which is recommended for continued stress and anxiety relief).


It is important you drink plenty of water before and after a treatment. If you have a groggy feeling after your session, 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

Once the hour of my treatment 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.

My therapist told me that there are 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.

Article Sources
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  1. Haller H, Lauche R, Sundberg T, Dobos G, Cramer H. Craniosacral therapy for chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2019;21(1):1. doi:10.1186/s12891-019-3017-y

  2. Khan MI, Sobocińska AA, Czarnecka AM, Król M, Botta B, Szczylik C. The therapeutic aspects of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) for cancer and their development: from nature to laboratoryCurr Pharm Des. 2016;22(12):1756-1766. doi:10.2174/1381612822666151211094901

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