What it is it?
Craniosacral therapy (CST) was invented in the early 1900s by American osteopath, William Sutherland. It is described by the Craniosacral Therapy Association of the UK as 'a subtle and profound healing form'.
[Sutherland] discovered intrinsic movements of the bones in the head and his further research revealed different rhythms in the body. He inferred, from further observation, and later went on to demonstrate to his satisfaction, that these movements are inextricably linked with mental and emotional health and that restriction of these movements corresponds to a reduction of the natural capacity to self-heal.
CST practitioners believe that they can 'listen with their hands' to up to three separate cranial rhythms (the alleged movement of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) around the brain and spinal column) and by doing so, diagnose a wide range of conditions — both physical and emotional and many of a serious medical nature.
Further, by gently manipulating the bones that make up the skull and sometimes the spine, they claim they can enable the body's own healing abilities to help to heal these conditions.
Note that is is similar to cranial osteopathy, but we want to concentrate purely on claims made about craniosacral therapy.
How are practitioners trained?
CST practitioners regularly state that they have studied for two years to gain their qualifications. In the UK, however, even the longest courses usually require part time study of less than 50 days on weekends spread over the two-year period. There is no requirement to hold any medical qualifications.
At present, the Craniosacral Therapy Association of the UK (CSTA) is the main organisation representing CST practitioners in the UK.
The CSTA has a Code of Ethics and state that all registered members are bound by this code. In relation to advertising, it states:
All advertising in any medium must be legal, decent, honest and truthful and must conform to the guidelines such as the British Code of Advertising Practice.
What sort of claims are being made?
The list of conditions that some craniosacral practitioners claim to be able to help with is long and varied, ranging from non-specific or relatively minor conditions to far more serious conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, stroke and addictions. Claims to treat allergies, autism, learning difficulties, colic and infertility are commonplace.
What's the evidence?
The evidence proffered to support craniosacral therapy is primarily anecdotal in nature, often taking the form of customer testimonials or case studies put forward by craniosacral practitioners.
The mechanism by which CST practitioners claim they can detect the rhythms of cerebrospinal fluid and by which they claim to influence the body into healing itself are biologically implausible. To date, no robust evidence has been produced that would validate these claimed mechanisms.
Because of this and because there is no good evidence that CST is effective for any condition, it seems likely that any effect perceived by those visiting a CST practitioner is due to placebo.
What's the harm?
There is little doubt that many CST practitioners use gentle techniques that are unlikely to cause any direct harm.
However, like many other healthcare therapies, there may be indirect harm caused by someone visiting a CST practitioner instead of consulting a registered medical practitioner, which may delay or dissuade someone with serious medical conditions from seeking proper and possibly urgently needed medical advice and treatment.
Many examples of this can be found at What's the Harm?
EBM-First's section on craniosacral therapy.
Skeptic Barista's blog posts on craniosacral therapy.
The Skeptic's Dictionary on craniosacral therapy.
Quackwatch: Why Cranial Therapy Is Silly gives a good overview on the beliefs, claims and scientific plausibility of craniosacral therapy.
DC's Improbable Science: Cranial Osteopathy at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, and inaction by Dr Gill Gaskin — craniosacral claims being made by the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM) have been challenged and is an excellent example of how this type of unproven therapy can gain some level of credibility if not challenged.