Headaches and migraines are debilitating conditions that affect millions of people worldwide. While medications and lifestyle modifications can help in the short term, for many people this is not a sustainable solution. In this blog, we will discuss how Craniosacral Therapy (CST) –an alternative, osteopathic manual therapy modality— can help headaches and migraines, in both the short and longer term.
First I must note that it’s always a good idea to consult with your physician or neurologist to rule out more serious issues that may be causing your symptoms, especially if this is a newer problem for you. They will be able to determine if more testing is needed (such a brain MRI) to rule out more significant pathology.
Fortunately for most people these tests and scans come back negative. And while that’s an initial sigh of relief, the headaches or migraines remain and the person is still searching for options. It’s for these folks that CST, and a broader Osteopathic Manual Therapy approach can help.
What Makes Craniosacral Therapy Unique for Headaches and Migraines
In conventional medicine and physical therapy, the head and skull are often thought of, mechanically, as rigid. That is, the skull is essentially a block without much attention to its component parts. Anatomists in the western tradition taught that our skulls, once mature, are incapable of any significant pliability or bony/fascial movement within it.
CST practitioners don’t hold this belief. They believe that the bones comprising the skull do in fact have a small amount of motion between them- motion which may also become restricted (read more about this here). In the craniosacral paradigm the structural skull is not rigid, does have potential for dysfunction, and should not be dismissed when it comes to headaches. The cranium is in fact a very intricate anatomical structure, and is intimately related to the central nervous system, branching peripheral nerves, and blood vessels emanating from it.
To be fair, there are practitioners who do appreciate the existence of structural/mechanical causes of headaches and migraines. There are doctors who provide Botox injections to the musculature of the outer skull (like the muscles that raise our eyebrows) to relieve spasm and pain. Many orthopedic PTs will work on muscles of the jaw and upper neck, as these have a direct connection to the skull. Dentists can also help with designing appliances to decrease strain on the temporomandibular joint of the jaw (the TMJ) to reduce headaches.
But what CST appreciates, in addition to all these things, is vital mobility within the cranium itself. A practitioner utilizing craniosacral techniques can address restrictions in the bony sutures of the skull, the dural membranes between the skull and the brain, and work to promote proper flow and drainage of fluids. CST appreciates the cranium as just another extension of the body. Like the trunk and the limbs, it has its own unique set of muscles, nerves, and bony joints that also need care and attention.
Mechanical Causes of Headaches and Migraines
So now that we’re thinking about our heads a little differently, we can now appreciate how some physical strains and forces could alter the mechanical balance in our cranial tissues:
- Trauma to the head, old and new
- A dysfunctional bite
- Tooth clenching/grinding
- Chronic poor posture, causing compressive forces in the back of the head
Further, tensions from lower in the body can transmit upward to the cranium and cause a headache. Very often these more distant restrictions are the missing link in head pain that craniosacral therapy has the ability to detect and address. That is, there’s a cranial restriction, but it is being driven by a more important dysfunction somewhere else, like in the upper back, the pelvis, or an organ like the liver.
What to Expect With Craniosacral Therapy for Headaches/Migraines
A good CST practitioner will be able to listen to the body, and apply techniques with a gentle touch to restore balance and motion in the system where it is needed. CST is a very light touch therapy, and for some folks it feels like nothing is happening at all while they are on the treatment table. Others feel profound shifts occurring in their body. But the key for the practitioner is to restore some vitality where is was dormant in the tissues to open the door to healing. As this happens, over the days and weeks that follow, the body can begin to restore itself and recover- physically, and many times also mentally and emotionally.
About the Author:
Tim Newton, PT, DPT, OCS, CFMM is a physical therapist who specializes in Osteopathic Manual Therapy to help people with pain, illness, and stress feel themselves again. His expertise is in Visceral Manipulation, Gentle Spinal Manipulation, and Craniosacral Therapy. He is the owner of Inspire Movement Physical Therapy in Columbia, MD.