The body as canvas

Therapist Paula Adams administers craniosacral therapy in hopes of healing from the core

SEE ME, FEEL ME, HEAL ME Paula Adams (left) applies the pressure techniques of craniosacral therapy to patient Krill Karph.

SEE ME, FEEL ME, HEAL ME Paula Adams (left) applies the pressure techniques of craniosacral therapy to patient Krill Karph.

photo by Tom Angel

For over 15 years, Lorraine MacDonald didn’t know what it was like not to have a headache.

“I’d wake up in the morning and this headache would hit,” recalls the 54-year-old office manager for Telephone Man in Paradise. “I’d be very nauseated, almost like morning sickness, and I’m much too old for that.”

Sometimes, while driving to work, the combination of pain and nausea was so intense she’d have to pull to the side of the road and “question why I was even driving the car.”

Since 1982, MacDonald has been suffering from fibromyalgia, a disorder whose symptoms include headaches, fatigue and joint pain.

“Everything hurts,” explains MacDonald about living with fibromyalgia, “and I’m not the kind to take drugs for it. Of course they don’t work anyway, so they’re of no value to me.”

She functioned by getting used to it, knowing she’d wake up with a headache that would gradually lessen as the day wore on and that by nightfall three or four hours of sleep would be the best she could do.

“I figured this is life, this is how it is,” says MacDonald about the years of suffering before she met craniosacral therapist Paula Jean Adams, of Chico’s Alternative Health Center.

“I was very, very skeptical,” MacDonald admits. “I thought this would be a lot of bells and whistles and lit candles, and I just wasn’t going there. I went to see her, but with my guard up.”

In fact what she found was a comfortable, private setting, where she relaxed on a massage table, fully clothed, while Adams used a light touch no heavier than the weight of a nickel to work what’s known as the spinal rhythms.

“It’s very relaxing,” MacDonald says, “and I didn’t find any bells and whistles. In fact, I didn’t feel anything at all. But after a few sessions, I got up one morning, was putting on my makeup, looked at my husband and said, ‘I don’t have a headache!'”

“Craniosacral therapy is a safe, structural method of assisting the body’s self-correcting mechanism,” says Paula Adams, a reiki and massage therapist who’s been practicing the art for over eight years.

Said to be effective both as a boost to the immune system and for a wide range of medical problems, from chronic fatigue and post-traumatic-stress disorder to brain and back injuries, craniosacral therapy boasts over 40,000 practitioners nationwide.

While the practice has its skeptics, there’s no shortage of supporters, success stories having appeared everywhere from the television show Oprah to Penthouse and Time magazines, where its founder, Dr. John Upledger, was recently named one of this year’s top 100 innovators in alternative medicine.

photo by Tom Angel

Just what is the body’s self-correcting mechanism? Upledger describes it as the membranes and fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord, as well as the attached bones of the cranium, tailbone and sacrum, a system he first experienced knowledge of while assisting in delicate neck surgery in the 1970s.

This craniosacral system, notes Upledger in his book Your Inner Physician and You, has its own rhythmic movement, one he likens to a hydraulic pump.

Upledger has spent 20 years developing scientific studies to confirm this system’s existence, first as clinical researcher and professor of biomechanics at Michigan State University and later at Florida’s Upledger Institute, where his work has led to worldwide recognition, including testimony before Congress in April 2000.

Hooked tadpole-fashion from our skull to our tailbone, Upledger’s hydraulic pump forms the core of our being, he says, and acts as an internal health barometer and is its own healing mechanism.

Enter craniosacral therapy, a method of discovering the missed beats in this rhythm and setting them back in tune.

“Just like with the heart, any system in your body has a rhythm,” explains Adams, “and so does your cerebral spinal fluid.” What she’s doing with her touch is following that rhythm to discover places where it’s blocked, where things have become stuck or are holding unnecessarily. As Adams puts it, “I know when the body is stopping its rhythm I’m on the site of an injury.

“It’s so subtle,” she adds. “I’m touching certain spots that I understand will set up a release, if your body wants to release it.” These can be new injuries, or sites of old physical and accompanying emotional scars held in tissue memory for years.

“Tissue retains memory,” Adams explains. “Every time you have a trauma, the body tissue rearranges itself to protect you. It’s actually a beautiful thing. It’s saying, we’d better tighten up here; let’s not let go until we get the message to let go.”

The trouble is, our bodies sometimes literally don’t get the message. Which is why, notes Adams, even old childhood injuries can be re-aggravated.

“You’re 10 years old,” she explains, “and your mother has a fender bender and you hurt your back. Then at 16 you hurt it rough-housing with your sister and again when you fall while skiing. You think you’re OK, but it progresses that way until you’re 32, and you pick the kid up, and your back is shot because your body has not cleaned out from all those other times.”

Cleaning you out, whether from old injury or new, begins by monitoring the cranial pulse through the fascial system, what’s known as the connective tissue of the body, as it radiates from the dural tube and the cerebral spinal column “to form a webbing around you,” as Adams puts it.

It’s a webbing she follows with her touch, looking for these “stuck spots"—regions not moving rhythmically with the craniosacral system. Coaxing these areas back into their natural movement Adams likens to taking a phone receiver and dangling it from its cord. “I just hold on and wait until I feel it unwind,” she says.

Adams, whose sensitivity to others is born of empathy, having become a therapist herself after craniosacral therapy cured her colitis and eased her scoliosis problems, holds an impressive knack for this unwinding.

“I always feel very relaxed after,” says MacDonald, “and Paula is absolutely wonderful, really gifted and a warm, caring professional. I look forward to the sessions.”

photo by Tom Angel

Having lost the headaches and the debilitating nausea that went with them, MacDonald admits there are times “where I’ll back off, skip appointments, because I feel so much better. Then I realize, ‘Gee, I can hardly lift my arms, and this is all starting to ache again.’

“So I’ve found that as long as I keep my sessions regular, that does it,” she adds. “I’m not 100 percent perfect, but the headaches are gone, and I know it’ll be a part of my personal care from now on.”

For her part, Adams, who’s worked with people aged 14 to 80, is thrilled with the reward of helping others and likes to see her therapy combined with other traditional and non-traditional healing work.

Through her private practice and work with chiropractor Mary Ewing, her clients have run the gamut, from multiple-sclerosis and whiplash victims, to TMJ (temporomandibular joint dysfunction) sufferers, to traumatized teens.

But you don’t have to be in trouble to try craniosacral therapy. It’s said to bolster the immune system, boost energy and heighten well being and is such a pleasant sensation clients go for monthly treatments, or “tune-ups,” as a preventative.

“It’s really quite remarkable,” says 73-year-old John Carney, of Magalia, who likens the sensation during treatment to having a blanket stretched inside you. “It’s as if, when Paula has one hand on one side of me and one on the other, in some form everything’s touching, like a net. It’s a good feeling.”

Sometimes for the affable Carney, who’s suffered from a severe degenerative disease of the spine for over 40 years, it’s a good hurt. “You have to understand that nobody touches my back,” says the man who was relegated to a wheelchair in his 30s but who refused to “bend.”

“Literally,” he adds. “I should be bent over with my head to my knees, but instead I stand very straight and walk like a soldier.” Refusing drugs and having taught himself to bear the pain through what he terms “self-forgetting,” Carney was nonetheless coming to the point where he was worried about managing.

“They never told me what would happen when I got old,” he says with a laugh. “I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to go back into the chair or what. But I’m way too active for that.”

A pain between his shoulders that he describes as “feeling like, if I turn my body, my shoulders are gonna break away from the rest of my body,” sent him to Adams.

“That was chronic and the most serious one so far,” Carney says. “But I’ve had what I consider a pretty dramatic improvement, because the pain is gone now, and that’s the first time it’s ever done that.”

Carney, who walked away from any kind of treatments years ago, now plans to continue with Adams, whom he calls a very dedicated, smooth professional. It’s these kinds of victories that bring tears to Adams’ eyes.

“It’s so rewarding,” she says, “it goes beyond the physical, giving clients back a lost sense of emotional control.

“I just know where to go and what to do,” she adds simply about an art that, for all the technical explanations, still feels magical to clients under her touch. And working with dozens of people a day does not lessen her dedication.

“I feel like my body is my canvas," she says, "and I love what I do."