Considerable confusion exists amongst the public and even many medical consultants regarding “cranial osteopathy”. Some people mistaking think a cranial osteopath specialises in conditions affecting the head, such as headaches, and could thereby be missing out on more effective forms of treatment for tension headaches.


Osteopathy was introduced into the UK from America in the early 20th Century. Whilst osteopaths deal with many of the same problems as conventional medical practitioners such as back pain, headaches and sports injuries, osteopathy has evolved independently outside the medical world in the UK. Most medical doctors do not rub shoulders with osteopaths during medical school or in hospitals in the same way as they do with similar therapists such as physiotherapists. This unfamiliarity can inevitably lead to misunderstanding amongst some doctors and the public.


Many people think a “cranial” osteopath is an osteopath who only deals with problems regarding the “cranium” or head, or that if they are suffering from conditions such as tension headaches that they need to see a cranial osteopath rather than a regular osteopath.


The truth is that cranial osteopaths do not specialise in head problems (such as tension headaches), “cranial osteopathy” actually refers to one particular type of treatment technique that is taught to most osteopaths at osteopathy school called “cranio-sacral therapy” (cranial technique). Cranial technique commonly involves very gentle hand holds over the head in an effort to influence the rhythmic motion of the head bones and the underlying membranes of the brain and spinal cord. Cranial technique is a controversial topic, even within the world of osteopathy.  Further confusion is amounted by the fact that some osteopaths describe themselves as a “cranial osteopath”, meaning they treat their patients (and a range of conditions) primarily or in some cases exclusively using “cranial technique”. The truth is that all osteopaths (whether they use cranial technique or not) are taught to deal with problems such as tension headaches and osteopaths describing themselves as “cranial osteopaths” aim to treat a wide range of problems, not just problems concerning the head.


It is not uncommon for patients with benign headaches to be directed to have “cranial osteopathy” by a neurologist. In some cases this is because the neurologist recognises that cranial techniques are very gentle and he / she does not want their patient to be subjected to forceful manipulation or clicking of the neck joints which in some vulnerable individuals may pose a risk to the small blood vessels in the upper neck. However the public should be reassured that for the last 15 years Osteopathy has been a fully regulated profession with guaranteed standards of education and training. Osteopaths take a full medical history before treating patients and according to the standards required of all osteopaths by law only use appropriate techniques that are safe and have the full informed consent of the patient. There are also many other treatment techniques besides “cracking” or “cranial” that most osteopaths are trained to provide, such as massage, stretching and articulation techniques, as well as expert self advice such as home exercises.


Cranial osteopathy can feel very relaxing for the recipient in much the same as reflexology can be. For some patients, particularly the very young, cranial osteopathy may be an appropriate and effective technique, however patients with conditions such as tension headaches who are exclusively treated with cranial osteopathy may be missing out on more effective forms of manual therapy that directly address the precise source of their pain, such as referred pain from the neck joints or “Trigger Points” in the neck / shoulder muscles.

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