History of Craniosacral Therapy

Dr William Sutherland was a student of Osteopathy around 1900. He was taught that the bones of the skull (the cranial bones) are fused in the adult. He noticed that the edges of the individual cranial bones are shaped as if they were designed for movement.

Movement is an important concept in Osteopathy, because restriction to any natural physiological movement will lead to a reduction in the function of that area of the body, which may have wider consequences in the functioning of the body as a whole.

Dr Sutherland set out to prove that the cranial bones did not move by wearing an experimental helmet he had specially designed which he believed would restrict any existing movement of the cranial bones. He theorised that if the cranial bones did not move, then this restriction should have no effect on him. In fact the effect of doing this was marked – he experienced a number of very distinct states ranging from gastric disorders to severely disturbed psychological states which ceased when he allowed the bones to be free again. He concluded that there must be movement between the cranial bones.

Dr Sutherland determined that there was a small regular movement of the cranial bones at a rate of 8-12 cycles per minute. He further discovered that this was just part of a number of interconnected movement mechanisms involving the whole body. This movement comprises an expansion/contraction of the body and an ebb and flow movement which he called “The Primary Respiratory Mechanism” – the components of which include:

  • The gentle ebb and flow in the fluid (Cerebrospinal Fluid – CSF) that surrounds the brain and spinal cord
  • The slight curling and uncurling movement of the Central Nervous System (CNS)
  • Regular small movements of the cranial bones and the sacrum (the lower end of the spine) which are connected by thick connective tissue running through the spinal column

He found that while working to release restrictions in the movement of the cranial bones and restriction in other body tissues, this appeared to lead to significant improvement in health and convinced Dr Sutherland that the “The Primary Respiratory Mechanism” was a major factor in the maintenance of health.

In his research over the next 60 years of clinical practice, Dr Sutherland determined that this movement was actually the gross manifestation of a number of slower, subtle movements involving the whole body. These expansion and contraction breath-like movements were termed by Dr Sutherland as palpable manifestations of the underlying “Breath of Life” animating the body.

Another important individual involved in the development of craniosacral therapy is Dr John Upledger who in the 1970s discovered the craniosacral rhythm for himself while he was assisting in a surgical operation in which he had to hold still the dural membranes surrounding the spinal. He was unable to do this because of pulsations taking place in the tissues and discovered that they moved in a rhythm of 8-12 cycles per minute. Upledger’s subsequent work also discovered the importance of the connective tissue in holding emotional patterns in patterns of resistance. He developed what he called “somato-emotional release” which is the release of the emotions as these patterns of resistance are resolved.