Mary Ruth Velicki MS, DPT
I have experienced two different ways of working with the body. As a traditional physical therapist, I often applied manual techniques to adjust the structure of the body. These treatments were guided mostly by my analytical mind, although sometimes my intuition chimed in with a little help. Then, when I was faced with healing from chronic pelvic pain, I began tuning in to my body in a quiet meditative state and using light-touch massage. To my surprise, this approach decreased the tension in my body and dropped the pain more effectively than the harder pressures I had been using, which I had learned through my physical therapy training.
I had been working with my body in this way for about two years when I attended courses for two forms of bodywork: (1) CranioSacral Therapy (CST), developed by John E. Upledger, an osteopathic physician, and (2) the Myofascial Release (MFR) approach, developed by John F. Barnes, a physical therapist.
CranioSacral Therapy (also known as craniosacral bodywork) was originally developed in 1899, by an osteopath, William Sutherland. This approach focuses on the biodynamic manipulation of the connective tissue of the cranium (skull), spine, and sacrum (the thick, triangular bone near the base of the spine). Practitioners and advocates of this approach believe that immobilization of any part of the craniosacral system can result in illness, chronic pain, and dysfunction of the nerves surrounding the brain and spinal cord. With this approach, the practitioner applies very light pressures to the skull and the spine, and these gentle motions are used to subtly alter the alignment of cranial and spinal bones as well as the underlying membranes and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Therapists feel for restrictions and perform gentle techniques to restore optimal movement within the system. Beginning in the 1970s, John Upledger, DO, expanded the approach and developed his own methods, referred to as CranioSacral Therapy.
The general term, myofascial release, has been used to describe many types of treatments that work on the connective tissue throughout the body. The connective tissue that surrounds, supports, protects, and separates all structures of the body, all the way down to the cellular level, is called fascia. Fascia has been described as a three-dimensional web, like an intricately woven net stocking that covers us from head to toe. It connects all areas of the body, so problems in one area of the body can directly affect what happens in another area. John F. Barnes has combined many of the principles of myofascial release with different perspectives to create a therapeutic approach referred to throughout this book as Myofascial Release (MFR). John F. Barnes (and many other practitioners of integrative manual therapy) theorize that past traumas such as surgery, injuries, and even psycho-emotional duress create subconscious bracing patterns in the body. Over time, this can create restrictions in the fascia, which eventually can lead to abnormal stresses and ultimately pain and dysfunction.
These therapeutic innovators worked together at one point, so there are similarities to the approaches. For example, they each employ similar techniques to restore subtle movements of the skull and the spine, but CST places more emphasis on those techniques. Likewise, both approaches use methods to restore the mobility of the fascia, but MFR emphasizes those methods more so than does CST. Both of these approaches work at the structural and energetic levels of the body, with an appreciation of the connection between the body, mind, and spirit.
A cornerstone of both CranioSacral Therapy and Myofascial Release Therapy is the notion that people have internal wisdom and an innate ability to heal themselves, and the focus of these treatments is to help people tap in to this natural potential. During each of these treatments, as physical techniques are applied to the body, the patient and therapist both assume a quiet, meditative state, and the therapist tunes in to subtle responses of the body to guide treatment.
With CST, therapists feel for a subtle body-wide motion called the craniosacral rhythm. In a full-body pattern, the pelvis and skull gently rotate up and down together in rhythm, and at the same time, the arms and legs roll in and out. While the client is talking or while his or her body is responding to treatment, the rhythm sometimes stops abruptly, which is considered a sign that what is happening at that moment in the body-mind is significant. If the therapist has training, he or she may ask simple non-leading questions to facilitate introspection.
Before my illness when I was working as a traditional Physical Therapist, I definitely wasn’t open to either of these complementary therapies. However, after being in pain for years and trying most of what Western medicine had to offer, I became a bit more open-minded. I underwent CST and MFR treatments as a patient and took courses as a therapist, and I found that both approaches were incredibly helpful for both my clients and me.