What You Can Expect From a Shiatsu Massage

Can Shiatsu Soothe Pain?

woman having shiatsu
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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, moving from one point to another in a rhythmic sequence.

While shiatsu has roots in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), it's now commonly practiced throughout the world. There are also countless gadgets, like massage chairs, back and neck massagers, and cushions, said to simulate shiatsu.

How Does Shiatsu Work?

As in acupressure, practitioners of shiatsu apply pressure to points on the body thought to be connected to pathways called "meridians". By stimulating these points, such therapists aim to promote the flow of vital energy (also known as "chi") and facilitate healing. 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, therapists apply deep pressure using their fingers, thumbs, and/or palms in a continuous sequence. The finger pads are used to apply pressure, 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.

Shiatsu is typically done on a low massage table or on a mat on the floor.

Although the sequence is often similar to other types of massage, no massage oil is used, so it is usually done with the client fully clothed in loose, comfortable clothing.

Uses for Shiatsu: Why Do People Get It?

Shiatsu is often used to lessen stress and protect against stress-related health issues. In addition, shiatsu is said to promote healing in conditions like anxiety, arthritis, back pain, constipation, headache, insomnia, menstrual problems, 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: Can It Really Help?

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 report published in Manual Therapy in 2015, for instance, shiatsu was found to improve pain intensity and quality of life for people with fibromyalgia

For this report, researchers analyzed previously published clinical trials on massage for fibromyalgia. Their analysis determined that shiatsu improved pain, pressure pain threshold, fatigue, sleep, and quality of life. 

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. People with leg stents should avoid abdominal massage.

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

The Takeaway

Letting stress go unchecked can have an impact on your health, raising your risk of health troubles ranging from insomnia to heart disease. The good news is that some strategies, like shiatsu, may offset the negative effects of stress and help ease aches and pain.

Shiatsu is just one of many types of bodywork. Learn about other popular 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 health problem, make sure to talk to your primary care provider first to discuss whether it's right for you. 

Sources:

Yuan SL, Matsutani LA, Marques AP. Effectiveness of different styles of massage therapy in fibromyalgia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Man Ther. 2015 Apr;20(2):257-64. 

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.

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.

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