Osteopathy, The Cradle Of Craniosacral Therapy

Craniosacral Therapy was conceived and developed by Dr. John E. Upledger (1932-2012) in the U.S. in the 1970’s and ’80s.  However, the principles upon which it is founded  belong squarely into the osteopathic field of the early 1900’s.

Dr. John E. Upledger himself was an osteopath, having graduated from the Kirksville College of Osteopathy and Surgery in 1963.  In the 1970’s, Dr. Upledger was led to research the mystery behind the movement of the spinal cord by a very personal experience, and ultimately developed his own therapeutic system, called craniosacral therapy.

To appreciate the underpinnings of craniosacral therapy, we need to go back to the beginnings of osteopathy, and the work of two men, Dr. Andrew Taylor Still and Dr William Garner Sutherland, in particular.

Illustrious connections in the field of osteopathy — from the past to the present

Dr. A. T. Still founded the American School of Osteopathy (ASO) in Kirksville in 1892, the same college that Dr. Upledger graduated from in 1963.  The college has gone through various name changes since.  Its name became A.T. Still University of Health Sciences in 2002, in honor of Dr. Andrew Taylor Still.

Dr. William Garner Sutherland studied at this school in the late 1890’s, as did another important figure of osteopathy, Dr. John Martin Littlejohn, born in Glasgow in 1865.

Osteopathy finds its way to Europe.

While Dr. Sutherland explored and developed cranial osteopathy in the U.S., Dr. Littlejohn took his knowledge of osteopathy back to England, after having severed ties due to philosphical differences between Dr. Still’s approach to osteopathy and his own.

In 1917, he founded the first osteopathic school in Britain, calling it the British School of Osteopathy.

Dr. Robert Lavezzari (1886-1977) founded the first osteopathic medical association in France in 1952, having taught osteopathic principles and techniques since the early 1930’s at the dispensary HAHNEMANN in Paris.  Dr. Lavezzari had learned osteopathy from one of Dr. Still’s students, Florence Gait.

Dr. Andrew Still discovered and developed osteopathy.  .

Dr. Andrew Tayler Still believed in the body’s inherent ability to heal itself.

Disillusioned by the state of medicine in the mid 1800’s, Dr. Still, a practicing physician at the time, spent several decades to develop an approach to healing, that would support the body in its natural ability to heal itself.  He felt that the heavy reliance on drugs and surgery at the time was often harmful to the patient

Dr. Still learned about human anatomy and the intricate connections between the musculoskeletal system and organ function by observing and interacting with nature through hunting, starting in childhood, farming, observing wildlife, and experimenting with machinery in farming.

He treated sick people for all kinds of illnesses using the medical methods of the time for several decades, coming to realize how ineffective, and sometimes downright dangerous, they were.  Symptoms were treated but causes of the illness ignored and left unexplored.

A thorough knowledge of anatomy is key to practicing osteopathy.

His strong background in animal anatomy prompted him to focus on human anatomy and to dissect numerous human cadavers to establish a firm and thorough knowledge of all the parts of the human body.

This practical research, and a natural gift for mechanics, helped him to realize that the state of the musculoskeletal system forms the foundation for all health.

Removing restrictions in the musculoskeletal system helps the body to heal itself.

Dr. Still came to realize that any restriction in the musculoskeletal system caused by overwork, injuries, or misuse of the body, including poor diet, excess alcohol, and use of drugs, weakened the body’s inherent ability to heal itself.  Release of these restrictions with osteopathic treatment helped the body to heal itself, no matter what illness.

Impedance of nerve conduction wreaked havoc with the function of muscles and inner organs alike.  Interrupted or erratic nerve conduction also disrupted the function of smooth muscles in the blood and lymph vessels to slow down or stop the flow of blood and lymph in various parts of the body.

Disrupted blood flow, lymph flow, and nerve conduction result in diseases of the body.

The consequences would be decreased delivery of nutrients and oxygen to all cells of the body and a build up of toxins in all the cells of the body.  Hence, the body’s ability to repair and maintain itself would be impaired, making it vulnerable to all kinds of diseases.

Dr. Still became aware of the important interplay between the blood supply and nerve conduction.  Either one might become disrupted by musculoskeletal restrictions.

However, they might also disrupt one another.  Erratic nerve conduction might hamper the ability of blood vessels to move the blood through the body.  Conversely, insufficient blood supply to the nerves would disable their ability to provide stimulus to all the body structures for their proper functioning.

According to Dr. Still, diseases were simply the consequences of improper blood and lymph flow, as well as disrupted nerve conduction, resulting from restrictions in the musculoskeletal system.

Osteopathy, as he developed it, not surgery or drugs, helped the body to release these restrictions and reestablish order and balance in its internal environment.

Osteopathy helps the body to heal itself of disease.

Personal experience of healing exclusively with osteopathic adjustments showed him that even febrile illnesses such a measles, diphtheria, mumps, and dysentery, to name a few, could be healed with the help of osteopathic treatment alone.

Dr. Still also helped to shorten labor, reduce the trauma of childbirth for both mother and child, as well as help the mother to recover from childbirth with the help of osteopathy.

The release of tension in the musculoskeletal system in the mother not only improved blood circulation, lymph flow, and nerve conduction, but also also helped to relax the smooth and skeletal muscles, leading to more coherent uterine contractions, and easier passage of the baby out of the womb and through the birth canal.

In 1892, Dr. Andrew T. Still founded the very first school of osteopathy in Kirksville, Missouri.

Dr. Still made a profound knowledge of anatomy a condition for his students to progress in their studies of osteopathy.  The ability to detect even the smallest restrictions in the musculoskeletal system was fundamental as well to ensure the success of osteopathic treatment.

One of his many students, Dr. William Garner Sutherland, helped to expand osteopathy as developed by Dr. Still to include osteopathic treatment of the skull bones.

Dr. Sutherland’s intense interest in skull anatomy was the driver and his extensive training in anatomy, as well as the development of excellent palpation skills, were the tools to help him make an important discovery.

“Where there is structure, there is function.”

The story of craniosacral therapy really begins with the very important discovery by Dr. William Garner Sutherland (1873-1954), in the early 1900’s that the bones of the skull retain some movement throughout a person’s lifetime.

Dr. Sutherland had become fascinated with anatomy, especially the skull, leading him to spend innumerable hours dissecting and examining every aspect of the human head.

Noticing the unique way in which the various skull bones articulated with one another, he was reminded of the saying:  Where there is structure, there is function.  If the edges of the bones where they came together differed in shape, there must be a reason for it.

It appeared to him that the edges were designed to allow movement of two skull bones abutting each other, just like the many bones in the body that move around a joint.  Thus, some of the edges were serrated, others beveled, others interlocking, and some had edges with a combination of these characteristics.

William Sutherland: Our skull bones are constantly shifting.

One day, it dawned on Dr. Sutherland that so far he’d only examined skulls of cadavers.  What if the sutures remained alive until death and only then became rigidly joined?

To test this theory, he designed various devices that allowed him to exert pressure on his own head (cranial) bones and adjust them periodically.  He discovered that the various pressures imparted on his head in various places created symptoms such as headaches, vision changes, nausea, mood changes, and decreased mental functions, among others.

If the human skull truly were rigid during a person’s lifetime, then the various pressures exerted on his skull bones should not have affected him at all.  The fact that he experienced symptoms told him, that his skull bones were shifting to accommodate the pressures but with ill effects on his physical and mental well being.

The symptoms magically disappeared with the release of pressure on the cranial bones.

Dr. Sutherland discovers the rhythmic movement of the sacrum related to cranial bone motion.

One day, he noticed rhythmic movement of the sacrum after releasing the pressure on his cranial bones.  Repeating the experiment several times brought the same result each time.  Thus, he reasoned that the cranial bones and sacrum moved in unison.   Moreover, locking up of one or more of the cranial bones could inhibit the rhythmic movement of the sacrum, and vice versa.

Continued research also revealed the interrelationship between the cranial and facial bones.  As the cranial orbits (of the eyes) are constructed of seven bones, some facial and others cranial bones, he understood that trauma to the face could affect the movement of the cranial bones, the same as trauma to the cranial bones could affect facial bone motion.

Dr. Sutherland explores the effects of birth trauma on infant and toddler cranial bone movement.

Dr. Sutherland also wanted to explore the effects of the intrauterine environment and birth trauma on the development of the cranial bones of infants, and cranial bone movement during infancy and the toddler years.  To this end he traveled to many surrounding towns in order to treat infants and toddlers for their various illnesses with cranial osteopathy.

Dr. Sutherland presented the results of research on cranial osteopathy, spanning several decades, in his book “The Cranial Bowl” in 1939.

The first official text book on cranial osteopathy “Osteopathy in the Cranial Field”, featuring Sutherland’s work with some additional refinements, was published in 1951 by Dr. Harold Magoun (1898-1981), one of Dr. Sutherland’s students.

Dr. Magoun’s great contribution was to present cranial osteopathy in the scientific language of the time and including additional techniques and terminology that had been developed since the publishing of Dr. Sutherland’s book.

Dr. Sutherland’s cranial osteopathy is brought to France in the early 1950’s.

Three of Dr. Sutherland’s students, Harold Magoun Sr, Viola Fryman, and Thomas Schooley, taught cranial osteopathy to a small group of doctors and physiotherapists in Paris in 1954.  Dr. Fryman, having lost her first born child in infancy, developed a cranial osteopathy practice to help children thrive.  She had learned much about cranial osteopathy applied to children from Dr. Sutherland.

Several works of note by Dr. Fryman:

  • Publication in 1963 detailing her years long research on the effects of severe childhood trauma on child development.
  • In 1971, she demonstrated the movement of the cranial bones with the help of force transducers.
  • In 1992, Dr. Fryman presented her results of a 3-year-long study on how osteopathic treatment can benefit children with neurological issues, as well as other illnesses.
  • Her demonstration of the powerful healing effects of osteopathic treatment to Russian doctors and surgeons in 1992 led to the establishment of osteopathic schools in Russia.

Dr. Sutherland’s work in cranial osteopathy lives on thanks to many of his students.

Dr. Sutherland died in 1954 but his work lives on here in the United States and in many other parts of the world.  Many of his students brought his teachings directly to the U.K. France, Russia, and elsewhere.

Dr. Upledger, who had taken a course in cranial osteopathy from Dr. Magoun in 1968, integrated cranial osteopathic techniques with other soft tissue manipulation to derive his own kind of therapy of the craniosacral system, calling it craniosacral therapy.

Moreover, he made this therapy also available to healthcare workers who were not medical doctors.  This allowed for much greater access to therapy of the craniosacral system, not only here in the U.S., but also abroad.