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What is Cranial Osteopathy?

By Heather Phillips
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cranial osteopathy is a manipulative treatment of the body, particularly the cranial and sacral areas. It is said to enhance the flow of cerebral spinal fluid and aid in healing various maladies. The theory behind cranial osteopathy is that well-being is connected to respiration, specifically the cycle of inhalation and exhalation. Practitioners understand this to be an inherent rhythmic motion throughout the body. When a traumatic event or injury blocks this motion, a cranial osteopath tries to heal it using gentle movement.

Dr. William Sutherland developed the technique of cranial osteopathy around the beginning of the 20th century. After he noticed that the bones in the skull move, he studied the effects of preventing that movement by experimenting on himself. It is said that, in this way, he found that he could cause conditions, such as migraines, mood changes, and blindness. He then developed a way to heal himself using fine movements of the cranium, and put his findings into practice to heal patients.

The practice of cranial osteopathy is scientifically controversial. Some studies have found the rhythm of the primary respiratory mechanism to be an actual observable phenomenon, while others have not. Another controversy is that many practitioners do not agree on inter-rater reliability. This is a statistical measurement that cranial osteopaths use to try to measure inhalation and exhalation — also known as flexion and extension. This means that most practitioners do not agree on when they are feeling flexion and extension, while examining the same patient. This disagreement can call into question the validity of this treatment.

Part of the problem in testing the scientific reliability of cranial osteopathy is that it is not possible to conduct double-blind studies with patients undergoing this type of treatment. Studies do exist, however, that explore the benefits of using this treatment for various conditions. One of the results is that osteopathic methods seem to relieve neck pain better than typical physical therapy and traditional medicine. It also seems to be more effective in relieving shoulder pain, tendinitis, symptoms of fibromyalgia, and tension headaches, among other conditions.

Cranial osteopathy can be used on patients of all ages, including babies and children. One study showed that this technique might be beneficial for childhood asthma sufferers. Some other pediatric conditions that can be treated using this method include colic, difficulty sucking, developmental delays, cerebral palsy, and learning disorders.

Practitioners licensed to use this treatment typically hold a Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) degree. In the United States, these physicians are fully licensed and are held to the same rigorous academic standards that medical doctors must meet. The main difference is that D.O.s have completed an additional 300 to 500 hours of study of the musculoskeletal system.

Doctors of osteopathy also tend to believe that the human body will strive toward healing itself. They generally have a holistic approach to medicine and try to use the least invasive yet effective technique for healing. Sometimes, cranial osteopathy is one of those methods.

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