Brain Massage

By Jacqueline S. Chan, D.O.

I recently attended for a cranial conference on treating brain trauma.  I was fortunate enough to lie down on a table for a significant amount of time while an osteopathic physician, who happened to be a neurologist at UCSF, massaged the fluid flow under my dural membranes and increased the venous output through the superior, inferior and transverse venous sinuses.  The treatment also relaxed the nuclei of my central autonomic system especially the locus ceruleus which produces the highest amount of norepinephrine, or stress hormone, in our bodies as well as increased the balance between the vagus nerve and amygdala.  I also had the little canopy of membrane that covers the pituitary gland “released.” The pituitary is the master endocrine gland the hypothalamus which is in charge of our adrenal and thyroid hormones. What does all that gibberish mean?  I got a brain massage!  How did I feel? I slept like a baby for 8 hours both nights and I awoke with a certain baseline of anxiety completely gone. I feel like I just returned from a two-week vacation.

Until recently, it was thought that the brain had no lymphatic system.  Anatomists and scientists are now discovering that indeed it does - it’s called the “glymphatic” system.  This system allows for drainage of some nasty things:

  1. Neurotoxins (such as heavy metals, particles of infectious organisms, pesticides and chemicals)
  2. Tau protein and amyloid beta protein which are both found to be built up in Alzheimer’s disease.

The result is increased health for the brain!

The brain is a unique organ consisting of 3 major types of cells. The neurons which are responsible for firing and helping us with voluntary movement of our bodies, creating our emotions, or thoughts, our decisions, creating our involuntary mechanism such as our heart beat and digestion. As important as the neurons are, however, they are a minority in our brains. We have more astrocytes and microglia cells to support our smart neurons.  The astrocytes have one foot upon a blood vessel and the other on an axon and the microglia sweep our brain looking for any infection they can clear.  

What happens when we experience trauma, which can be from a physical blow to the head, an emotional blow to the heart or an infectious onslaught that overwhelms our system?  A network in our brain called the Central Autonomic Network (CAN) gang up on our vagus nerve and inhibit it. When the vagus nerve gets inhibited this can cause dizziness, heart palpitations, a feeling like your “on and off” stress switch is hyper reactive, indigestion, diarrhea and constipation.  When the Vagus nerve is inhibited, we have more inflammation (Kevin Tracey, The Inflammatory reflex, Nature Vol. 420 12/2002 pages 853-859) In fact, inflammation and white matter degeneration can persist for years after a single traumatic brain injury. 

During a traumatic brain injury several things can happen to the axons… or arms and legs of our neurons that help deliver our neurological impulses. The axons can undergo:  shearing, tearing or stretching.  When the axons are sheared the little microtubules inside our neuron cells that deliver nutrients and chemical messengers begin to shrivel and breakdown, a toxic inflammatory chemical called “glutamate” gets dumped into the space and the mitochondria which produce ATP or energy packets in each cell of the body become overwhelmed as they get flooded in a soup of ions such as calcium that make it difficult for them to function.  The cerebral blood flow collapses and a tremendous amount of oxidative stress begins to happen… in the most important organ of our body…the brain.  The microglia of the brain, which are the brains white blood cells or soldiers that fight infection are then aroused and become hyperactive. This creates inflammation in the brain, which can last for years.  Symptoms can be headache, dizziness or fainting, balance problems, exercise intolerance, forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, fatigue and insomnia.  

With skilled training and thousands of hours of practice such as I have had, the motion and position of the 23 bones in the skull can be felt. Dural strains can be discerned and the position of the brain can be felt. I feel for things like if the brain has slowed its motion, are the brain’s pulsations lopsided so one hemisphere or lobe limps along? Are the neurons trembling like under the influence of as subclinical seizure?  Are the sutures in the cranial bones compressed? Is the critical ganglion of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system damaged or on hyper mode?

If someone has undergone a blow to the front of the face this often distorts the sphenoid bone, which orchestrates the eye balls and vision. The sphenoid bone houses the pituitary gland and so hormonal issues can ensue.   A blow to the cheekbones or temporal bone around the ear can compromise hearing as well as balance and cause dizziness.  Modern medicine recognizes the profound importance of the vagal nerve and has created “vagal nerve stimulators” which are little mechanical devices that are surgically placed just under the skin near the vagal nerve output in those with ongoing seizures.  We are noticing that the vagal nerve stimulators not only reduce inflammation, but also seizures. 

If you suffer from headaches, dizziness, insomnia, anxiety or trauma, you may benefit from an osteopathic cranial treatment. The first treatment is 45 minutes and for follow up appointments 30 minutes. You should expect to notice prolonged improvement after 3 sessions.