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Why is the scientific evidence for Craniosacral Therapy still thin?

Why is craniosacral therapy a complementary therapy? That’s a question I often get asked.  Or even more the skeptic question what is the scientific proof behind craniosacral therapy? A lot of people still have a lot of cynicism towards alternative therapies and too be honest I was the same when I was younger. First hand experience with the power of Reiki and later craniosacral therapy made me change my opinion. A subjective experience however doesn’t make a scientific proof. But what makes a good scientific proof and why is scientific basis for craniosacral therapy still thin? What is the way to go forward to proof craniosacral therapy in the future?

Like I mentioned in western science subjective experience or I rather call it introspection is not accepted, unlike in Eastern tradition where introspective experience by for example yogis or zen monks is used in philosophy or medicine. So all the amazing things I experience very accurate during a cranial sacral therapy session will never count in a scientific proof according to current Western standards. The experience is subjective of what I experience in my body and can’t be measured. The rationalistic worldview in science is still dating back to Descartes in the 16th century, who divided body and mind. It wasn’t until the 18th century with the Scottish philosopher David Hume that experiment was accepted in scientific proof which was especially important for development of biology, chemistry and physics.

In today’s medical science the clinical proof is the standard. Let me explain why it is hard to proof the benifits of craniosacral therapy with this. The clinical proof needs to fulfil certain conditions. First of all the test group needs to be big enough to make sure the outcome is not caused by random luck. So a nice case study like on this link will never work.

Secondly the experiment needs to be done doubleblind on the test group and sham group who get a placebo treatment. But how would you give fake craniosacral therapy session? That will be really hard. There is however German research group who designed a sham control intervention with light touch for patients with chronic neck pain. That’s an interesting development that has potential, but that would not be doubleblind though. The client will not know if he receives craniosacral therapy or the sham light touch therapy, but the therapist of course will know what he does. So the experiment will only be blind. Doubleblind is kind of impossible anyway for any experiment that requires an intentional human intervention.

The third requirement is that each test person must get the exact same treatment. In regular healthcare this probably is logic. Craniosacral therapy as many other complementary therapies has a holistic approach and then this is kind of counter-intuitive. The holistic philosophy means you see the body as a whole and that every human is unique. So even if people have the exact same complaint you might chose for different techniques in a craniosacral treatment. This is also in line with the precision medicine initiative that president Obama announced in his last state of union. Based on the gene, environment and lifestyle of a patient an individual treatment will be set. Of course for certain complaints you can set up standardized cranio treatments. For example neck pains you will treat with the atlas-occiput technique. Still this will I believe lower the success rate of the experiment and treatment.

Another solution to this would be to use some kind of black box model. This means you only focus on input (person with complaint) and outcome after a number of sessions of craniosacral therapy. The exact techniques that the therapist then applies during the treatment don’t matter. This should show a higher effectiveness outcome of the experiment. Still I doubt if it would accepted by the broader scientific community if there is not a clear treatment protocol. Also the different approaches of craniosacral therapy from mechanic to biodynamic don’t help in this regard.

Another thing to take into account is the therapist as a dependent factor. One craniosacral therapist would give the same client a totally different treatment than another therapist. And this would be even the case disregarding the different approaches to cranioacral therapy, ranging from mechanic to biodynamic. Each therapist has his own “energy” (or perceptual field) and will establish a different interaction with a client than his colleague. This means he will feel different things and also chose a different trajectory for the treatment. When skeptics bash craniosacral therapy, an example they put forward different times is a research from 1994 where the therapists fell different craniosacral rate on the same person. For someone with an outdated mechanistic approach to science this might indeed be strange. On the other hand in quantum mechanics it is an accepted that fact that someone who perfoms the experiment is a dependent factor in the outcome. So to me it is not strange at all that different therapists feel different cranial rhythms. Especially when you take into account the three different rhythms that are distinguished within craniosacral therapy. In nature you also never see a perfect wave, it always consists of a sum of smaller waves with a shorter wavelength.

How to proof craniosacral therapy in the future

So all together this shows why the proof of the effectiveness of craniosacral therapy is very difficult. A lot of research done so far was inadequate and not meeting all the requirements, check link. Of course money available for research is a factor. However I don’t like the response that you hear a lot around the alternative medicine “we don’t have the money of pharmaceutic industry”. That’s not the way to go forward. One way to go forward is to really carefully and strictly set up the experiment.

Or another way is to set up a smart research plan. For example i like the experiment with Iceman Wim Hof by the University of Nijmegen. To proof his claim that he could control his immunesystem, while doing his breathing excersises they injected some unharmful bacteria in his arms. It was shown that he had a better immune reaction to it than the test group. I think for craniosacral therapy there also must be clever ways to show it’s effect on the body with objective measurements. Show sphenoid or jawbone manupilation in a MRI scan, reduce beta-amyloid plagues in Alzheimer patients or reduced stress hormones.  Just with some out of the box thinking it should be possible to proof the effect of craniosacral therapy.

Giving a craniosacral therapy session with hands around the head.

Giving a craniosacral therapy session with hands around the head.

3 thoughts on “Why is the scientific evidence for Craniosacral Therapy still thin?

  1. Av Singh

    Great article, I really like that you’ve covered all the important points and many I didn’t think of.
    I would love if CST was better understood and accepted. But I think biggest factor for ‘proof’ is the climate of general thought, such as when scientists discovered the earth went round the sun and was not in the centre of the universe. At the time it was religion that was holding back the truth with its own motives, nowadays its scientists themselves and our general materialistic culture/commercialism. I believe money is power and controls what information reaches the general populace and research that reaches the newspapers etc. The extreme example being how smoking was not declared cancer causing until ~80 years after the first strong piece of research.
    Even so, I’m sure good research would support craniosacral therapy in having a wider audience. Its a great therapy. thank you.

  2. TOm G

    Excellent article; thank you for your thoughtful analysis. My daughter experienced a Traumatic Brain Injury 16 months ago – we have tried traditional and non-traditional methods. The traditional methods left much to be desired and left resulted in drug dependence. We have been able to migrate off amphetamines for my daughter and now treat symptoms of pain and constriction with CRT and Release Physical Therapy while we wait for the body to heal itself.

    I will be interested to see if CRT can prove it self as you have mentioned in chronic conditions where there are enough people in the pools to measure differences in treatment outcomes. (e.g. Dementia, ADHD, etc.)

    1. willem Post author

      Thanks for your reply. Craniosacral therapy can do miracles for brain injuries. I hope that miracle will happen for your daugther too!

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