Cranial osteopathy

September 23rd, 2004 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, gillian mckeith, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, times | 51 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday September 23, 2004
The Guardian

· “Cranial osteopathy – aligning the plates of the skull.” Sounds great. Maybe I can use it to treat my hangovers. The Times certainly likes it, and it even got Dr Toby Murcott to tell us how it works in a box, alongside a case study, called “What’s the evidence?” Toby says: “Can cranial osteopathy treat the brain? Cranial osteopathy is a gentle technique – practitioners claim to feel a subtle pulse in the fluid surrounding the brain. There is some research to suggest that these pulses are related to slow, regular changes in blood pressure in the brain. This has yet to gain wide acceptance and it’s not clear how working with these might lead to health improvements.” Here’s what you need to know.

· First, cranial osteopaths don’t even think the pulses are blood pressure; their theories revolve around the “inherent rhythmic motility” of the brain and spinal cord, mixed with breath and cardiac cycles, causing rhythmic fluctuation of the brain and surrounding fluid, which they think they can feel through the bones of your skull, and fix up with a bit of wiggling. They write long articles about actin and myosin (the things in muscle cells that make them move) being present in brain cells; unfortunately, they always forget to mention that brain cells lack the dense arrays of those filaments which are necessary to generate any significant movement.

· But are there real “cranial pulses” to be felt, however they may be generated? It’s easy to find out: ask a couple of cranial osteopaths to write down the frequency of the pulses on the same person’s skull, and then see if they give the same answer. There have been five papers published doing just this, and in none of them did the osteopaths give similar answers. Which suggests to me that (a) this is not a reliable biological phenomenon, and (b) perhaps these cranial osteopaths are, er, imagining it. So: the discipline is based on a misunderstanding, they can’t measure what they claim to measure and work with, and there’s no evidence to say it works.

· When I see a box labelled “What’s the evidence?” next to a health article by a Dr Toby Murcott, call me naive, but I assume he’s a medical doctor, rather than a science journalist with a PhD. And by now, regular readers must be wondering how I’m going to crowbar Gillian McKeith into this column. Well, what do you know, Dr Toby Murcott was the “science adviser” on You Are What You Eat, the TV show that told us we should eat more dark leaves, because the chlorophyll would oxygenate our blood. Bravo.

The following appeared two weeks later:

Don’t knock it

Thursday October 7, 2004
The Guardian

I don’t care what Ben Goldacre says (Bad science, September 23), after having severe sleeping problems for almost two years due to stress I was referred to an osteopath by my GP. I haven’t needed sleeping pills since (three months now). Bad science? Perhaps, but it worked for me.
E McDonald
Antwerp, Belgium

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51 Responses

  1. PaediatricOsteopath said,

    May 21, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Kimberly Lee Strohecker did not die following osteopathic treatment, she died after stopping her anticonvulsive medication, as advised/suggested by a chiropractor – nowhere does it say she had cranial osteopathic treatment.
    The infant that died, whilst tremendously sad, again was not following treatment by an osteopath – it was a craniosacral therapist, a profession which requires a tiny amount of training compared to that an osteopath goes through.
    Michael Arditti “nearly died” after a severe infection – which had been missed by a number of practitioners including his GP – not as a result of treatment from an osteopath. Admittedly in that situation I would hope that the osteopaths would have referred on earlier, but then if the GP had investigated properly in the first place then the osteopaths would never have been involved.
    There is a distinct difference between cranial osteopaths and craniosacral therapists, not least the level of training involved. And when it involves children it is important to do your homework and use an osteopath who has had further training from the Foundation for Paediatric osteopathy (UK) or similar to have a better understanding of the needs of infants and children, they are not just small adults and practitioners do need better a better knowledge base to treat them effectively and safely.