The 12 Cranial Nerves


Starting with the vegan conference last month I’ve been going pretty steady in search of professional development. Seek andyou shall find.

Recently, I attended the cranial nerves workshop in Los Angeles taught by Karen Axelrod who also developed this class for the Upledger Institute. Our class launched this new addition to the Craniosacral protocol through the Upledger Institute which is named after its founder John Upledger, a renowned osteopath who pioneered research in craniosacral therapy and established the field as a holistic bodywork practice wrestling it out of the proprietary hands of the medical community and into the hands of laypeople and bodyworkers.

I attended this class in the cranial nerves because as a craniosacral therapist I can affect these nerves since our therapy emphasizes spreading head bones apart to allow free circulation of the fluids and nerve passages within these structures. My mom lost her sense of smell which compels me to learn about the cranial nerves so I can try and help her regain that sense.


Plus, Karen is my first serious craniosacral teacher and I respect her as a guru and she developed this class and I was with her since she was germinating it so I feel drawn to support her and attend and plus it would just be great to know more about the nerves to help everyone that I work with.

So that’s why I came and I am thankful to my mom who helped me go and Karen who offered the early registration tuition discount so I could go. And also grateful to my friend and massage client Kitt Heilborn who let me stay at her fun place in Canoga Park.

Karen was not my first craniosacral teacher as I started out training by attending an Introduction to Craniosacral Therapy class in Thousand Oaks for a couple of days before deciding to invest the considerable sum of money into taking one of the usual four-day workshops which are the standard training platform.

However, Karen was my Craniosacral 1 teacher and shortly after that she was a teacher’s aide in my Craniosacral 2 workshop.  This was eight years ago and I remember then that she was studying the cranial nerves and offering day-long workshops on them which I wanted to take as I had read about them but needed much more practical training and reinforcement.

Gathering Chi



The workshop was held at the Garland Hotel in North Hollywood at the junction where the Hollywood and Ventura freeways connect near Universal Studios. It was a beautiful environment in a convenient location right off the freeway. We received a special rate on parking which would have been $22 a day for self-parking at the hotel, otherwise.

Several participants traveled from their homes nearby from Playa Del Rey to Glendale and Orange County. Those who’d traveled far were encouraged to stay at the venue with a discounted room rate offered to attendees. Some people used Air BnB in neighboring areas while others stayed with friends or camped in beach areas further north.

Our class included 22 students with 4 teachers aides to assist us while we practiced on each other. There were only two men attending, one of whom was a rolfer which is a pretty deep tissue style of massage. Craniosacral is extremely soft touch the whole opposite spectrum as rolfing. Some attendees had come from as far away as Colorado and Arizona while others of us gathered from nearby areas.

Karen began our class by describing why she had developed this class which was due to a gap she saw in our core training which really didn’t emphasize much understanding of the individual nerves and locations and effects. Instead our training emphasized an understanding of the membrane system which are the meninges and these contain all those nerves and structures like the brain and endocrine glands, etc.

During early craniosacral training the neuroanatomy of the system was enough which was why I didn’t learn the cranial nerves so good, as it was overload. So we take this umbrella approach to the craniosacral system in our early training. But eventually one seeks deeper understanding especially in light of what we do with our techniques. Karen described how her effectiveness increased when she started applying her understanding of the cranial nerves to her therapy work with others.












There are 12 pairs of cranial nerves and they create our sensory systems such as sense of smell, sight, taste, hearing, balance. These nerves also regulate breathing, heartbeat, digestion and other autonomic processes that keep us alive.

The first nerve is the olfactory which is an extension from the base of the frontal cortex so it is actually part of the brain. The sense of smell is our oldest sense. It is the first one to develop. I’ve heard the sense of smell described as a mainline to the limbic system, the emotional brain.









The olfactory bulbs sit on the cribiform plate which is on the ethmoid bone between the eyes. Nerve fibers come up from the nasal concha or cavity at the top of the nostrils through tiny foramina or holes in the cribiform plate. There are mucous membranes to translate the chemical sensations of a smell molecule being inhaled into a solution the nerve fibers can pass on to the olfactory bulb. Hence, a common cause for the loss of smell is dry nose.

Our practice to release a restricted olfactory nerve was to learn its anatomy and that it is a sensory nerve bringing information into the body instead of a motor nerve directing some activity to happen. We examine its nucleus in the brain, its trajectory to the target organ such as the ciliary fibers in the nasal concha and the anatomy of the structures supporting it like the ethmoid bone and the cribiform plate.

Principles of Engagement


Some guidelines to working with nerves were to float them distally since nerves branch out toward the periphery. A tenet of CST therapy is to follow the tissues in the direction of ease and not direct the body.

We also determine facilitated versus inhibited nerves to deem whether nerves are either excessively firing, which can irritate the end organ and send sensory messages back to create a feedback loop perpetuating a debilitating condition. Or whether a nerve is inhibited; such as being restricted in firing to the end organs which, in the case of the vagal nerve, the inhibition of the heart can lead to sudden death.

After a general overview of the cranial nerves and their loci in the brain and brain stem we learn which nerves provide sensory and motor innervation or both.

We review the general properties and structural location of these nerves within the floor of the cranium and brain and learn the intracranial membranes through which nerves pass on their way to the cranial foramina or holes in the skull allowing nerves to innervate all target organs like face and neck.

When working the nerves we maintain a neutral intention to not try and work on a particular issue or toward an outcome but rather trust what the body wants to show us while we assess with a general overview within a rubric of principles like:

  • blend and meld
  • follow the tissue
  • trust what we feel
  • treat what we find
  • use the least amount of exertion to facilitate release.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

We learned about contraindications to craniosacral work such as any condition adversely affected by a change in intracranial pressure including aneurysm, strokes or concussions to name a few.

We also learned that nerves become dysfunctional due to a variety of reasons including:

  • osseous restriction within the cranium or cervical region
  • inflammation
  • injury, disease or traum
  • demyleination as in fibromyalgia
  • poor intracranial cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) pressure or intercranial vascular pressure
  • poor vascularization and blood flow to the nerve which get oxygen from arterial blood

Over the days of the training we follow the tract of each particular nerve, for instance the olfactory:


Sensory receptors run from nasal mucosa in the nose up through the ethmoid bone and back to the olfactory bulbs of the cerebrum. Here the fibers synapse with the olfactory tracts of the frontal lobes . THe tracts then travel posteriorly through the brain to the subcallosal and hippocampal gyri. There is another synaptic juncture here with fibers going to the pyriform and hypocampal areas of the brain. Then associated fibers connect these areas with the tegmentum, the pons and the thalamus. Reflex connections are also present that provide communication between the olfactory system and the nuclei of several cranial nerves.

After the theoretical overview we began learning the individual nerves and applying practical techniques to help them.

Summing up her review of the principles we would be applying over the course of the workshop, Karen reminded us that the mission of craniosacral therapy (CST), according to Dr. John Upledger, is to “contribute toward helping people soften and become more humane.”

Meet the Tissue


To work with cranial nerves we applied skills we already use in our craniosacral techniques but just perceive our palpation at a deeper level. We evaluate and treat these nerves with a variety of techniques, including:

  • measuring the inherent movement of the craniosacral system
  • treating fascial restrictions by following tissue movement along the direction of comfort
  • directing energy through the conductive body
  • encouraging cessation of the craniosacral pulse for a moment of release of nerve compression at the cranial base
  • spreading bones to release compressed foramins where nerves exit bones
  • mouthwork, since so many nerves are impacted by the maxillae and other bones of the hard palate
  • positional release which presents an opportunity for restricted nerves to unwind
  • temporal decompression at the mandibular joint since this region affects the reticular alarm system and the trigeminal nerve
  • and finally, utilizing the significance detector such as when the cranial rhythm stops abruptly when we are on a particular region which is a signal to sit with the sensation

I’ll leave it at that and if you are interested in learning more about this contact Karen Axelrod through her own website or the International Alliance of Healthcare Educators IAHE website. Suffice it to say, I learned alot that I am still assimilating.

One of the best parts was actually getting lots of craniosacral therapy for myself as it had been a few years since my last workshop and I was happy to return to the community of practitioners. I recommend this class “Craniosacral Therapy for Cranial Nerves 1,” as an excellent overview of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves and for teaching us skills to apply our techniques toward benefiting people suffering from troubling conditions related to these nerves.

If you are interested in receiving craniosacral therapy or inviting me to attend your therapy workshop or retreat please contact me on this website and I will respond promptly.


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