Occipital Drop Reflex Testing

Occipital Drop Reflex Testing (ODRT) is an assessment method that assists in the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions.  The technique involves a physician checking for movement in the occipital bone (the bone that forms the base of the skull) with the thumbs after “challenging” the patient’s system in some way.  A “challenge” means exposing the system to some type of stress, such as:



Physical Assessment: pressing on a spinal segment or over an organ (e.g. the liver)

Emotional Assessment: asking the patient to think of an unpleasant emotion (e.g. anger or grief)

Treatment Assessment: asking the patient to think of certain treatment techniques (e.g. supplementing with magnesium, making a dietary change, taking a specific herb, etc.)



After the challenge, the occipital bone does one of two things:

It doesn’t move at all: this means that the challenge was negative.  For example, if I pressed over the adrenal glands, then checked the occipital bone with my thumbs and it didn’t move at all then it would suggest the adrenal glands were healthy.  Similarly, if I asked the patient to think about B vitamins and the occipital bone didn’t move it would suggest they wouldn’t need those as a supplement.
It dips on one side: this means that the challenge was positive.  For example, if I pressed on the first thoracic vertebra (involved in heart and lung function, amongst others) and then noted a drop in the occipital bone it would suggest that vertebra was out of alignment and needed an adjustment.  Similarly, if I asked the patient to think about feeling guilty and felt the occipital drop reflex it would suggest that some emotional work on feelings of guilt would be important.

Why does the occipital bone drop?

Our bodies demonstrate certain automatic functions in the face of momentary non-life threatening stress (like the “challenges” outlined above).  These include a temporary (for only a few seconds) drop in the occipital bone, plus mild increased breathing rate, mild increased heart rate, impaired electrical conductance of the skin, weaker muscles and several other subtle changes.  This occurs because from a survival perspective we must always be ready to react to a threatening stimulus (think of primitive humans – if an animal attacked them and they weren’t responsive enough to get away they would be eaten and their genes wouldn’t be passed on…quick reaction is a positive evolutionary trait).  Since we can’t be constantly jumping, hyperventilating, and overreacting to every little stimulus that comes along, the body quickly determines if the stimulus is a real threat – if it is not (and it usually isn’t), only very subtle shifts like the occipital drop reflex occur (completely unnoticed by us and others).


Why bother to use this technique?

I use ODRT because testing my patients in this way greatly enhances my diagnostic and treatment efficacy.  In medicine there are no guarantees – most of the time when a patient presents as a “textbook” case they respond fully to treatment.  However, on occasion they don’t respond as expected…and sometimes need an entirely different approach than what was originally expected.  Using ODRT I can simply “ask” the patient’s body what is going on to definitively determine the best course of action.  Please take this example:


A patient, let us call her Laura, presents with terrible fatigue, muscle aches, insomnia, and daily headaches.  After a thorough intake and physical exam it’s most likely that she is suffering from adrenal fatigue.  However there is also a possibility that she may have sublaboratory hypothyroidism instead…or fibromyalgia….or chronic fatigue syndrome…or chronic Lyme disease…or a yeast overgrowth syndrome…or so other chronic infection (please note that none of these possible diagnoses have a good lab test to confirm their presence or absence).  Treatment for adrenal fatigue (with herbs, B vitamins, magnesium, etc.) will likely resolve her concerns, but if they don’t work fully then the next most likely condition will need to be addressed.  Using ODRT to confirm my clinical suspicions and fine tune her treatment protocol will remove the “trial and error” element of her case.

Is ODRT a unique test unto itself?

No, it is not.  Other practitioners use muscle testing, applied kinesiology, autonomic response testing (which I am also trained in), or machines like VEGA, EAV, and meridian stress testers to gain similar information.  In my experience the occipital drop reflex is the simplest and is a very accurate method.  This is because it only involves the skill of the practitioner (in muscle testing the patient has to “resist” properly) and it uses physical contact rather than a machine (I always know what my hands are feeling, but I can’t definitively know what’s going on inside the machine).



Is the ODRT your main method of diagnosis?

Absolutely not.  My primary method of diagnosis is based on the patient intake, physical exam findings, laboratory results, and diagnostic imaging studies.  I use those tools to formulate the best diagnosis and treatment plan possible.  Following that I then use the ODRT to “check my work” – slightly adjust dosages, decide between two similar supplements (e.g. does the patient need Szygium tincture or garlic extract to address their yeast overgrowth?), and verify my diagnosis.  Let us look at one more example to illustrate this:


Please recall the case of Laura, above.  Say I had my working diagnosis of adrenal fatigue and planned to treat with herbs, B vitamins, and magnesium (this successfully treats 90% of such cases).  Upon using the ODRT her body “tells” me that there is Lyme bacteria growing in her system.  At that point I ask Laura if she ever had a tick bite (please note that only 50% of Lyme patients report a tick bite) – she tells me that she’s not sure but that she is an avid camper and recalls having a strange rash once about 10 years ago (months before her symptoms started).  I go on to ask her about whether she has brain fog, whether her symptoms come and go, whether she has sinuses issues, knee pain – she says “yes” to all of these typical Lyme symptoms.  I then use the ODRT to test my modified protocol (including some Lyme-killing herbs, etc.), find it to be right on the money, and the patient begins treatment.

In this case the ODRT helped me to fine tune my diagnosis by prompting me to ask my patient the right exploratory questions.  Did I change my diagnosis to Lyme disease based on ODRT?  Not at all – the new symptoms that were uncovered with ODRT were responsible for that.

© 2012 by Dr. Bryan Rade ND and Dr. Taryn Deering ND