Can Shiatsu Soothe Pain?

woman having shiatsu
Stella/Getty Images

Shiatsu is a type of massage therapy that was primarily developed in Japan. With its name derived from the Japanese term for "finger pressure," it involves applying pressure to specific points on the body. While shiatsu has roots in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), it's now commonly practiced throughout the world.

How Does Shiatsu Work?

As in acupressure, practitioners of shiatsu apply pressure to points on the body thought to be connected to certain so-called meridians.

By stimulating these points, such therapists aim to promote the flow of vital energy (also known as "chi"). According to the principles of TCM, blockages in the flow of chi can contribute to a wide range of illnesses.

Although scientists have yet to determine how or why shiatsu might improve health, it's theorized that the treatment may calm the sympathetic nervous system and—in turn—stimulate circulation, reduce stress, and soothe pain.

What Does Shiatsu Feel Like?

When performing shiatsu, massage therapists use their fingers, thumbs, and/or palms in a continuous rhythmic sequence. The finger pads are used to apply pressure throughout the treatment, and each point is typically held for two to eight seconds.

In some cases, the pressure points stimulated during shiatsu may feel tender. Those receiving shiatsu often describe this tenderness as "good pain," but it's important to alert your therapist if you feel discomfort or pain during your massage.

Your therapist can then adjust the pressure to make the massage more comfortable for you.

Uses for Shiatsu

Shiatsu is often used to relieve stress and protect against stress-related health issues. In addition, shiatsu is said to aid in the treatment of the following health problems: anxiety, arthritis, asthma, back pain, bronchitis, colds, constipation, coughs, depression, headache, insomnia, menstrual problems, migraine,neck and shoulder pain, premenstrual syndrome, sciatica, and sinus problems.

Shiatsu is also said to increase energy, promote recovery from injuries, and stimulate the digestive system.

The Benefits of Shiatsu

Research on the health effects of shiatsu is fairly limited, but there's some evidence that it may offer certain benefits.

For example, a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2008 suggests that shiatsu may help reduce stress and alleviate fatigue. In a survey of 633 people who had recently completed six months of shiatsu treatments, the study's authors also found that shiatsu may help ease symptoms associated with muscle and joint problems.

Some research also indicates that shiatsu shows promise in the treatment of certain pain-causing conditions.

In a pilot study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics in 2013, for instance, eight weeks of twice-weekly shiatsu sessions appeared to reduce pain intensity and improve sleep quality in patients with fibromyalgia.

Furthermore, a small study published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing in 2001 found that shiatsu may help relieve pain and anxiety in people with lower back pain.

Safety and Side Effects

While shiatsu is generally considered safe when done by a qualified professional, certain individuals should take caution and consult a physician before receiving shiatsu. For example, there's some concern that shiatsu may have harmful effects in pregnant women, patients who have recently undergone chemotherapy or radiation, and people with such conditions as osteoporosis, heart disease, and blood clotting disorders.

Additionally, shiatsu should not be performed directly over bruises, inflamed skin, unhealed wounds, tumors, abdominal hernia, or areas of recent fractures.

Shiatsu should also be avoided immediately after surgery, and by people with infectious skin disease, rash, or open wounds.

Alternatives to Shiatsu

Shiatsu is just one of many types of massage therapy. Go here to learn about other forms of massage, such as deep tissue massage, Thai massage, hot stone massage, and aromatherapy massage.

If you're thinking of using any type of massage therapy (including shiatsu) to manage a chronic health problem, make sure to talk to your doctor before pursuing treatment.

Additional Tips

  • The treatment is done on a low massage table or on the floor.
  • Unlike other forms of massage, with shiatsu no massage oil is applied, so you remain fully clothed during the treatment. You may be asked to bring comfortable clothing to wear.
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal before the shiatsu.
  • If it's your first time at the clinic or spa, arrive at least 10 minutes early to complete the necessary forms. Otherwise, arrive 5 minutes early so you can have a few minutes to rest and relax before starting the shiatsu.

Sources

Brady LH, Henry K, Luth JF 2nd, Casper-Bruett KK. "The effects of shiatsu on lower back pain." J Holist Nurs. 2001 Mar;19(1):57-70.

Long AF. "The effectiveness of shiatsu: findings from a cross-European, prospective observational study." J Altern Complement Med. 2008 Oct;14(8):921-30.

Robinson N, Lorenc A, Liao X. "The evidence for Shiatsu: a systematic review of Shiatsu and acupressure." BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011 Oct 7;11:88.

Yuan SL, Berssaneti AA, Marques AP. "Effects of shiatsu in the management of fibromyalgia symptoms: a controlled pilot study." J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2013 Sep;36(7):436-43.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

Continue Reading