An Introduction to Cranio-facial Massage Therapy

Who can benefit, and how? And what are some common mistakes or misconceptions?

Benjamin Dillard has 43 years of experience in therapy and has spent the past quarter-century strictly in clinical work. So it’s no problem for him to start at the very beginning when it comes to his art of choice.

“First of all, it’s pronounced Cranio-facial massage, because that’s what we’re treating,” he says. “It’s not like myofascial release, it’s facial.”

Seems simple, but then so do a lot of the concepts Dillard, the president, and owner of Dillard Wellness in Cape Coral, FL, discusses. The problem is that despite their simplicity, too many therapists are overlooking core concepts of treatment. 

“It’s not what I’d call common knowledge,” says Dillard, “but it’s an idea that everything is connected, and nothing exists on its own. It’s not a common thought process in Western medicine, where we tend to treat symptoms.”

Dillard clarifies that he takes a lot of his information from Travell & Simons’ Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction, Volumes 1 & 2, a bible of sorts for trigger-point practitioners. “The largest chapter in Volume 1 is devoted to mechanical problems with the jaw,” he explains, “because it’s such a complex process of how your muscles work to talk, to eat.”

His research resulted in Dillard creating his own list of the interconnected nature of different muscles for his students. “If the upper trapezius has a trigger point, you also need to check the opposing trapezius, you need to check the sternocleidomastoid. I’ve assembled a 1-2-3 list—if you check this muscle, you also need to check these other muscles because more than likely, there will be problems with the other muscles. That way, you’re not continually guessing what the problem may be,” Dillard explained.

Once certain basic definitions are defined, Dillard tends to introduce his students to the gestalt paradigm, which he defines quite simply. “All the parts of the whole,” he says, “are so interrelated that you cannot affect any one part without affecting all of the parts.”

“Everything is connected, but in juxtaposition to our system in the Western world… we’re practicing allopathic medicine, which means we are treating symptoms. Hence, you see why we give so many drugs. Don’t treat the conditions, treat the person.

To illustrate this, Dillard gave three examples of different patients who could conceivably present with lower back issues. “They’re three different people, different ages, sexes, sizes… I can’t just run you through a protocol,” he said.

(This website he shared, however, might give you an idea of that interconnected nature that is the foundation of Dillard’s teachings.)

From there, Dillard covers his approach to bodywork, which he quickly clarifies is not his alone. “I’ve had mentors and plenty of other people show me this, but it’s quite simple—you’re only going to be working any particular area for up to two minutes, then you leave,” he laughed. “You move from a primary, soft tissue site, to the antagonist muscles whose functions are the opposite of the area you just worked.

“Then it’s onto the synergist muscles that help that primary area.”

Next is a crucial but often overlooked step Dillard defines as simply checking your work. “You’re back at that primary point, reworking it if necessary, but the key is you’re not working on any one area for more than two minutes.”

The key is trust in one’s craft and ability, and proper respect for the body’s natural healing mechanisms. “Soft tissue work and manipulation is just irrigation, changing chemicals locally. That’s why you have muscle knots, spasms—they’re caused by imbalances within the system. Simple manipulation changes the composition, and only two minutes of this ignites the body’s ability to work on that change.”

The fresh blood and lymph you’ve introduced will start a process that Dillard says shows results within five minutes, or however long it takes you to work back to that primary site. It shouldn’t be much more than five minutes, however, because two minutes is all that’s needed to start to change local chemical compositions. “It circumvents someone pounding on you for ten minutes, bruising you and creating a new pain and trauma where you need to recover,” explained Dillard.

How can such an easily explained concept perplex so many professionals? “I think it’s education,” Dillard offered. “There’s a big difference between clinical massage and spa massage. Plus there’s a fundamental lack of trust, an inability to take the things we’ve discussed into account.”

For example, the position of a body during treatment—prone, supine, etc.—change the effects of gravity and can create different sensations and the ability to feel a spot that may be tender. “It takes 30 seconds to have you lay on your back and feel your own abdomen—and you’ll feel fine,” said Dillard. “But a side-lying position, you feel that tenderness because gravity takes the viscera down towards the table or the lower side of your body. Muscles are lengthened and in a new, passive position.”  

It’s logical, but not quite common sense, and that’s the problem. Therapists are taught routines and protocols rather than such concepts. In his role as an instructor, Dillard sees it as his responsibility to break that cycle and introduce these new ideas into each practitioner’s bag of tricks. 

“Headache and back pain are the two biggest things that send people to doctor’s offices,” said Dillard. “I wanted to present something that allows massage therapists to better deal with craniofacial pain.” 

To learn more, attend a live course on cranial-facial massage in your area, click here to register.

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