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A Therapy for the Whole Self: How Craniosacral Therapy Taught Me to Treat the Whole Patient

Updated: Dec 10, 2022

By Jenni de Jong I Start Wondering Columnist

As a young woman, I decided to pursue physical therapy as my profession because I wanted to help people. I didn’t even really know what that meant, but my dad was a health educator and the field of fitness intrigued me, mostly because of the impact of movement and nutrition on our bodies’ health.

I was fascinated with my classes in Texas A&M University‘s health department. I learned about how exercise benefits our heart and muscles, how we can continue to impact bone density with weight training even as we age, and how stress and anxiety can impact our body’s strength and immunity.

Taking Ownership of Health

Learning about these things made me realize how much impact we can have on our own health and wellbeing, and I was excited to learn more about working with the body. After graduating from Texas A&M, I attended Physical Therapy school and then started my career at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in the Texas Medical Center in Houston.

It was in this setting that I was introduced to Craniosacral Therapy (CST). I was working in the outpatient department and a co-worker had taken the first-level class in CST. She shared a few of the techniques with me, and I loved how I could incorporate them into the other manual therapies I was utilizing as well as a stretching and strengthening program. I began to take the classes to learn more about this light touch, manual therapy developed by Dr. John Upledger, an osteopathic physician who dedicated his life practice to this work. By the time I completed the first class, I was hooked.

Finding Balance

What I learned in Craniosacral classes was how the body is a self-correcting mechanism; it wants to find balance. While this made complete sense to me based on my previous studies, it still was a bit of a paradigm shift. Studying CST required me to broaden my area of perception in order to feel the cranial rhythm and calibrate my touch to palpate restrictions within the fascial tissue network.

I also started to learn to view the body as a whole integrated system instead of isolated parts. My patients were teaching me that they were much more than the condition they presented with, and Upledger’s Craniosacral Therapy was defining how to access a broader look. Before starting my CST journey, I would internally categorize patients as “The Shoulder” or “The Hip,” but Craniosacral Therapy taught me to take into account a broader scope of the person before me.

Photo by on Unsplash

Photo by on Unsplash

Migraine Headaches

In Craniosacral Therapy 1 (the first class in a series), therapists are taught the 10 Step Protocol. As beginners in CST, we follow this protocol in an ordered series of steps. It is the full body in scope, and even though it is a bit like learning to play scales on the piano before learning to branch out into more complicated pieces, this protocol is none-the-less deeply therapeutic.

It was during this phase of my training that I met Mrs. Martinez, who I consider my first CST patient. I am deeply indebted to her and consider her one of my greatest teachers on this path and whom I will never forget.

Mrs. Martinez came to St. Luke’s Physical Therapy Outpatient Clinic because she was referred by a neurologist who had been treating her for migraine headaches after a car accident. She had suffered headaches every day for months and was having trouble concentrating at work and living her life, in general. She was 55 years old, generally in good health, and only described having menopausal hormonal changes on her intake form.

Her name appeared on my schedule for a Monday afternoon, but it just happened to be the day after I had returned from my Cranial 1 class. I couldn’t wait to try out the 10 Step Protocol on a patient. The “knees” at 8 and 9 a.m., “stroke” at 10 a.m., and an “amputee” at 11 a.m. all had specific doctor’s orders. But Mrs. Martinez was at 1 p.m., and the doctor had simply written “eval and treat” in the orders, so that meant I could use my newfound knowledge and perform my first 10 Steps in the clinic!

When Mrs. Martinez arrived, I took her medical history and explained that I had just come back from a course on Craniosacral Therapy. I explained what it was and asked her if she would be willing to give it a try, as my instructor had said it really helped with headaches. She was enthusiastic about the prospect, so we got started!

As I began working with the fascial diaphragms, I paid attention to what was happening under my hands. I was fascinated with the movement, and so was Mrs. Martinez—she could feel it, too. I was especially excited that I could feel the Craniosacral Rhythm, a gentle widening and narrowing motion throughout the body in response to the production and resorption of cerebrospinal fluid. I felt the sacrum gently release and lengthen, creating more space between spinal segments L5 and S1, and I could especially feel C1 disengaging from the occiput as I performed the cranial base release and the gentle floating of the occiput toward me as I became aware of the dural tube lengthening and unwinding. Mrs. Martinez noticed the benefits, too, leaving the first day feeling relaxed and with clearer eyes.

I was so excited about my interactions with Mrs. Martinez because I was able to feel everything that I had learned about during the weekend training. I was even more excited that the doctor had given orders for Mrs. Martinez to participate in physical therapy for two weeks, as needed.

Rapid Relief

Mrs. Martinez told me the next day that she had gone to bed and slept that night without a headache. I was thrilled and ready to start her second 10-Step appointment. Just as the day before, I felt so much happening under my hands, and Mrs. Martinez was able to describe what she was feeling, especially as we reached the work in the cranium. She had come to the clinic with a headache, and she said she could feel the tension releasing as I supported her body in one of the membrane techniques called sphenoid decompression. We were both explorers together, and both of us were fascinated at the inherent motion and releases within her body.

I finished the 10 Step with a technique called a still point. Its purpose is to help the body integrate the changes that were made during the treatment. Once Mrs. Martinez slowly sat up, she again looked extremely relaxed and told me her headache was gone.

Emotional Release

On the third day, Mrs. Martinez was thrilled when she came to therapy because she had worked all morning without a headache! “I think this stuff really works,” she said to me, and I agreed with her.

We were both excited to see what messages her body had for us that day. I began the 10 Step Protocol, but as I placed my hands on her respiratory diaphragm, I was concerned about my skill level because I couldn’t feel the craniosacral rhythm at all. During both previous sessions, I was able to feel everything and now I couldn’t feel anything.

I noticed then that Mrs. Martinez had a tear running down her face, which concerned me, so I asked her what was happening. She said she couldn’t explain it, but something about where I had my hands brought up feelings of sadness. She told me how worried she had been the last few months that she might have to quit her job—a job she desperately needed. She told me she just didn’t know if she could function with the headaches and how it had created tension between her and her husband.

There had been financial stress because of the time off work from the accident and emotional stress.

She continued by saying how hopeful she was the past few days because of the break in the pattern of the headaches and that she was starting to feel more herself again. I felt the tissues warming and spreading under my hands as she talked about her grief and stress. It felt like her body was changing the way it had been holding the pattern of tension in her respiratory diaphragm.

Deep Healing

As I continued in my Cranial education, I learned about the Significance Detector, which is a sudden stop in the craniosacral rhythm and indicates something of deep therapeutic importance is happening in a session. This helped me understand why I couldn’t feel the craniosacral rhythm during Mrs. Martinez’s diaphragm release.

I also learned about SomatoEmotional Release and how to work with emotions that may surface in the practice of Craniosacral Therapy. Even though I didn’t know these things at the time, what struck me the most was how body-mind-spirit integration played an apparent role in my initial attempts with the 10 Step Protocol.

That experience completely changed how I looked at every patient who came into our clinic. No longer could I view someone as “The Shoulder.” With a Craniosacral paradigm, I now ask myself, “What led up to the critical point where the patient experienced shoulder pain?” I now know it is rarely one isolated occurrence.

The body is highly adept at maintaining functional operation. However, over time, with layer upon layer of stress placed upon it, the weakest link may appear as a symptom. Because the body is composed of layers of connective tissue extending throughout the body, a fall on the tailbone that jams the sacrum into the lumbar spine can create restrictions up into the neck. Over time—especially when you add other factors into the mix, such as daily posture, additional past injuries, and unintegrated emotional patterns—the abnormal tensions created in the neck can pull on the shoulder, causing pain and restriction.

In Mrs. Martinez’s case, the force of the impact from the car accident was greater than her body’s ability to absorb the blow. Her tissues needed time to heal, and the tension patterns created by the accident produced migraine headaches. Craniosacral Therapy helped support her body’s innate wisdom to release some of the structural restrictions as well as the way her body held emotional tensions and stress.

A Holistic Approach

I saw Mrs. Martinez for five consecutive days. By the fourth day, she was able to work a full day without a headache. She called me the following Monday and canceled the remaining week remaining in her prescription because she felt so good. I told her to call me if she needed anything, and she agreed, but she also said she didn’t think she would need me. She was thrilled and so was I.

I never heard from her again, but I have thought about her many times through the last 25 years. I am truly indebted to her for showing me how Craniosacral Therapy and SomatoEmotional Release address the individual holistically, taking into account the whole person, not just a symptom or a body part. It is a reminder that no matter where we are coming from or what we’re dealing with, true healing comes when we lovingly address the pain and uncover the restrictions in heart, mind, and body.

Is your body in pain or holding tension? If so, do you feel it could be tied to a past physical or emotional situation that you haven’t processed yet?

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