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Shiatsu: helping your energy to flow more freely

Samantha Chadband
Shiatsu Society

Shiatsu is a traditional hands-on Japanese healing therapy usually administered on a futon/padded mat with the client fully clothed. It can help in a wide range of ­conditions, from specific injuries to more general symptoms of poor health. Shiatsu is a deeply relaxing experience that should leave the client feeling invigorated yet relaxed.
The philosophy underlying shiatsu is that vital energy (known as Ki in Japanese) flows throughout the body in a series of channels called meridians. For many different reasons these channels get blocked and the Ki is not able to flow freely, which produces a symptom. The practitioner will consider the client's state of health and the symptoms being experienced and then, depending on their constitution and general energy levels, will use a variety of techniques to improve the energy flow. These include gentle holding, pressing on the meridians with palms, thumbs, fingers, elbows, knees and feet, and, when appropriate, more dynamic rotations and stretches. As the quality of Ki changes, the symptoms associated with a lack of flow will gradually improve.
Shiatsu is a therapy that works on the individual as a complete being - not just on the physical body, but also on an emotional and/or mental level.
Common conditions that shiatsu can help with include:

  • Back pain and neck stiffness.
  • Headaches and migraines.
  • Joint pain and reduced mobility (shiatsu eases ­tension and stiffness).
  • Menstrual problems.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Asthmatic symptoms (shiatsu improves breathing).
  • Depression.

Shiatsu practitioners train over three years on a part-time basis and continue to undertake professional development throughout their careers.
There has been much research carried out on the effectiveness of shiatsu. One research report looking at the effects of shiatsu on lower back pain found that pain decreased significantly after each treatment, especially immediately after the treatment.(1) Anxiety also decreased after each treatment.
A separate research report identified a range of benefits, including improvements in energy levels, relaxation, confidence, symptom control, clarity of thought and mobility.(2)
Another publication explored the possible benefits of shiatsu for carers in the community,(3) and found that 96% said they thought the course of shiatsu had been beneficial.
European Shiatsu Federation Research Project
The European Shiatsu Federation has recently commissioned a qualitative piece of research, being carried out by Professor Andrew Long at Salford University. He is looking at the research and documentation of experiences and effects of shiatsu across Europe. The aim is that this will provide a platform from which to solidly describe shiatsu and its benefits, as well as helping to launch more specific projects. The research is in two phases, and the first phase is due for completion by the end of this year.
Shiatsu in the NHS
Many shiatsu practitioners are involved in the NHS. The Bristol Cancer Help Centre has had a shiatsu practitioner, Thea Bailey, in its therapy team for nearly 10 years. According to Thea: "Cancer patients who receive shiatsu find that when their mind, body and spirits are in a more harmonious state then, as we all know, the body's own healing potential has far greater capacity to become even more effective. This is vitally important work about the way we connect with our patients, and how we can use touch safely and therapeutically. Shiatsu is safe and highly effective for patients in critical states of health."
Shiatsu is currently being delivered by the Pain Management Team at the Boston Pilgrim Hospital in Lincolnshire. This multidisciplinary team works with people with any type of chronic pain. Shiatsu practitioner Andrea Barr has patients with a wide range of conditions, most commonly fibromyalgia. Andrea finds that most back pain has a significant emotional aspect and is interested in the way shiatsu can work with this. Although shiatsu can lead to complete pain relief, most often it doesn't completely relieve the pain but patients find it easier deal with the pain. Andrea works with patients on ways to support themselves and finds they respond well to this empowerment. The shiatsu sessions are fully integrated into the hospital service, and Andrea completes notes on the patients' files and writes to their GP to update them on all treatment. She has found that that doctors are even starting to use language more commonly associated with complementary treatments such as shiatsu when they refer patients, a recent ­example being a doctor referring a patient as they seemed to have "some energy stagnating". Doctors at Boston Pilgrim Hospital have recommended Andrea to the National Pain Society in recognition of the value they place on her work.
Anne Palmer is a shiatsu practitioner who worked on a research project at Adelaide Medical Centre in Newcastle upon Tyne. Anne evaluated the effectiveness of shiatsu for patients with chronic shoulder pain. GPs at the centre referred patients to Anne, who used the SF-36 evaluation questionnaire and took objective measurements of their range of movements. At the two-month follow-up all patients showed improvements. As a result of this, shiatsu is now one of the six complementary therapies being used by the primary care group.
For the past four years Newcastle Medical School has been involved in an innovative scheme (Health 2000) that attaches fourth-year medical students to a Gosforth-based NHS GP surgery that works closely with complementary therapists. Students attend lectures, workshops, clinics and receive treatments themselves, to become more familiar with the concepts of shiatsu and other holistic therapies. Feedback from recent students has included: "It seems to help with chronic complaints such as rheumatism", "if [complementary therapies] work for some people [they] could reduce the bill for people with long-standing problems who go back to the doctor again and again", and "it was brilliant, there is definitely something in it".
Margaret Gucklhorn is a shiatsu practitioner who has worked at the Caravan, part of St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, for the past six years. Margaret has been working primarily with patients attending the clinic due to substance misuse. The manager, Mr Ciaran Kelly, states that: "Shiatsu is one of the alternative therapies that has been successful in the field of substance misuse and the medical conditions that arise from it. The client group may range from recovering addicts to using addicts but they share a common problem, the inability to relax, and shiatsu has been found to help this greatly. Also in the treatment of hepatitis C shiatsu is used widely with good results. Clients report better energy levels and a healthier appetite after a few sessions."
North Tyneside Health Authority funded a three- month pilot project that gave people with HIV and AIDS the opportunity to have shiatsu sessions. The evaluation of the pilot was so positive that the trust went on to fund the work for another three years. The Health Authority funded three shiatsu practitioners to work as a team delivering the project. Patients responded to leaflets about the project placed in the sexually transmitted disease centre at Newcastle General Hospital and local support projects such as the AIDS Community Trust and Body Positive North East. Improvements monitored included: lowering of stress levels; development of a more appropriate appetite and much improved digestion; better sleep patterns; and improvements in the skin conditions. In the latter part of the project the Health Authority extended the sessions to include those caring for HIV and AIDS patients, recognising the value of support given by these people and the strain they were experiencing.
BKCW (Brent, Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster) NHS Mental Health Trust has employed Anna Maria Aprile to provide shiatsu treatments at a health project in Hammersmith, London. Nurses, social workers, doctors and complementary therapists work for the project, which supports women with addictions. Many forms of addiction are presented, but the project mainly focuses on alcohol dependency. The entire project team meet weekly for case-study discussions, ensuring that shiatsu work is fully integrated into the treatment programme offered by the project. Shiatsu has remained a constant part of the project programme because the results are clear - "it works", and that is why it is offered and continues to be funded.


  1. Brady LH, Henry K, Luth JF, Casper-Bruett KK. The effects of shiatsu on lower back pain. J Holistic Nurs 2001;19(1):57-70.
  2. Chessman S, Christian R, Cresswell J. Exploring the value of shiatsu in palliative care day services. Int J Palliat Nurs 2001;7(5):234-9.
  3. Formby J. Shiatsu massage for carers. Comp Ther Med 1997;5(1):47-8.

Shiatsu Society
Eastlands Court St Peters Road
Rugby CV21 3QP
T:0845 130 4560
F:01788 555052
Names of ­practitioners and schools are ­available either directly from the Shiatsu Society or from the website Links to other websites plus useful books are also listed on the Shiatsu Society website