In Memoriam: Dr. John Upledger

A couple of weeks ago, on October 26th, Dr. John Upledger, founder of the Upledger Institute and a developer of Craniosacral Therapy, passed away at his home in Florida. Upledger, an osteopath and medical doctor, began researching the craniosacral system and developing Craniosacral Therapy (CST) in the early 1970s after observing that restriction of dural tube movement – resulting in dural tension and pressure changes in the cerebrospinal fluid – had an effect on systemic and nervous system health through altered intensity, frequency, or volume of nerve flow. Upledger referred to the cranial bones, the sacrum, and the coccyx, as “levers which can be used to evaluate and treat dural membrane abnormalities” by subtly shifting fascial layers.[1]

In 1986, Upledger established the Upledger Institute to dedicate himself to researching and training others in Craniosacral Therapy. Since then, this work has deepened our understanding of not only the craniosacral system, but also of its interconnectedness with other body systems. Still, for decades, the mainstream medical establishment vehemently fought the basic concepts that underpin CST. For one, the common wisdom among American medical practitioners and scientists was (and still is, in some cases[2]) that the sutures of the skull fuse in childhood and are thereafter immovable, thus disallowing the mechanism of the treatment; however, Upledger himself engaged in research at the University of Michigan’s Department of Biomechanics as far back as 1975 that he claimed “proved that skull bones do not fuse.”[3]

Research over the last 40 years has not brought resolution to the question of suture fusion; but part of what has brought CST increasing legitimacy is its success as a treatment for children, and medical practitioners generally agree that the sutures remain moveable in youth. And so, over time – and largely because the treatment is non-invasive and presents no risk of harm, at worst simply failing to provide benefit – the mainstream medical world has increasingly begun to accept both the anecdotal benefits and the physiological tenets of Craniosacral Therapy. As studies are undertaken to examine the effects of CST on everything from multiple sclerosis to asthma to pregnancy, a number of renowned American medical facilities have begun to provide the treatment as part of “complementary” and “integrative” healthcare offerings.

As a scientist trained in vigorous research methodologies, Dr. Upledger was quick to clarify that he did not see his research as “a criticism of scientific technology,” nor as opposed to medical practice. But he was concerned that physicians had “neglected the development of the use of [their] hands as diagnostic instruments” and so he issued a “plea for a balance between what our hands can tell us and what sophisticated instruments and biochemical analyses can tell us.”[4] Unfortunately, Upledger foresaw a trend that has only become more complicated by modern medical models which often limit the time a doctor can spend with a patient and thus any opportunity to truly engage with them through touch. But as the debate over appropriate health care reform continues, perhaps we should heed the decades-old wisdom of Dr. Upledger, who wrote in 1983 that “the cost of health care can decrease considerably if ‘touching skills’ are developed and used by health care professionals.”[5]


[1] John E. Upledger and Jon Vredevooogd, Craniosacral Therapy (Seattle: Eastland Press, 1983) 61.

[2] See, for example: Steve E. Hartman and James M. Norton, “Craniosacral Therapy is Not Medicine,” Physical Therapy 82, no. 11 (November 2002): 1146-1147,; Thomas Zane, “A Review of Craniosacral Therapy: Science, Fads, and Applied Behavior Analysis,” The Current Repertoire (Fall 2011),

[3] John E. Upledger, Craniosacral Therapy: Touchstone for Natural Healing (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2001) 11.

[4] Upledger and Vredvegoogd, 242

[5] Ibid., 243