CST debate: Health experts disagree on treatment's value
"In 18 years of practice, I haven't worked with a single client that didn't benefit from the therapy."
Angel Phillips, shown here with a patient
Craniosacral therapy is a gentle modality with light touches applied to the skull and spine.
Angel Phillips, a certified craniosacral therapist and instructor in Minneapolis, says the soft palpations, administered by the practitioner, manipulate the layers of connective tissue and fluid — called the craniosacral system — and eases the movement of the fluid through the spinal cord.
She says she has seen its healing powers, which help the central nervous system's performance, overall body pain and mobility. Regardless of scientific evidence, or the lack thereof, Phillips believes the proof of CST's efficacy is in the testimonials of her patients.
"In 18 years of practice, I haven't worked with a single client that didn't benefit from the therapy," she says.
Phillips' highly rated practice, Blessing Way Bodywork, specializes in therapy for pregnant mothers, infants and children.
She says clients see her for a variety of reasons, including headaches, back pain, digestive disorders, fertility issues and even children struggling with Attention Deficit Disorder or autism. "It's very effective," she says. "The testimonials given by my clients attest to it."
Because of her experiences, Phillips has a hard time believing CST is nothing more than a placebo.
She says one of her clients has a 4-month-old daughter who used to be fussy and cried most of the time. When the baby came in for her second treatment, Phillips says the father happily reported that his daughter was happier and more relaxed.
"Anyone who doesn't think it really works has likely never experienced CST," she says.
Steve E. Hartman, a professor who specializes in alternative medicine, says CST is scientifically groundless.
"It's one of the many imaginary treatments masquerading under the euphemism of alternative health care," says Hartman, who has taught gross anatomy at the University of New England's College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine, since 1986.
Hartman says other than testimonials, CST practitioners offer no scientific evidence explaining the biology behind the treatment, nor can they produce evidence the procedure actually helps.
"In rational discourse, it's understood those making extraordinary claims carry the burden of proof," he says. "If I tell you there's a rhinoceros in the woods behind my house, it would be my job to show evidence, not yours to prove me wrong."
Hartman says, despite no proof of CST's efficacy, people still seek it out. He attributes this to practitioners' claims to heal anything from headaches to learning disorders. "Some are drawn to it because other science-based treatments were unsuccessful."
He adds when health improvements follow CST, it's probably a placebo effect, meaning patients may conclude the treatment has been effective because they believe it to be true.
"I'm not sure whether infants can experience placebo effects," Hartman says. "But parents may see immediate results because they want to — not because the treatment had a direct effect."
Hartman's published several articles on the topic of CST in Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and says there hasn't been any peer-reviewed retorts to his conclusions. "It's a belief system, not a medicine," Hartman says.