Shiatsu massage therapy was brought to Japan around the 10th century. With the knowledge of local physicians and acupuncturists, it evolved from a form of Japanese massage called anma. In the 1950s, the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare deemed shiatsu a legitimate form of medical therapy.
Although developed in Japan, the conceptual framework of shiatsu is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). According to TCM, a life force or energy (known as Qi) flows through the human body along pathways called meridians, which are also connected to various internal organs. Disease is thought to be the result of an imbalance or blockage in the flow of this energy. Shiatsu aims to correct these imbalances by applying pressure on specific points (acupoints) along the energy meridians. In essence, it’s a type of acupressure. Stimulating acupoints leads to a release of endorphins and serotonin (which play significant roles in pain relief and mood).
Though the word “shiatsu” means “finger pressure,” the thumbs, knees, elbows, or feet may also be used to apply pressure. However, shiatsu doesn’t just restrict itself to acupoints – it works on the entire body, incorporating stretching exercises and joint manipulation and rotation as well. And while TCM usually examines the tongue or pulse, touch is used to diagnose diseases in shiatsu.
Benefits Of Shiatsu
Shiatsu has been found to help with various health-related problems. Here are just a few:
Lower Back Pain
Many people suffer with lower back pain, some experiencing difficulty bending, lifting objects, and even sleeping properly. Shiatsu has been found useful in lowering back pain, irrespective of the number of years the person has been suffering. In one study, participants with lower back pain said they would recommend shiatsu to relatives or friends experiencing similar issues.
The pain-relieving effect of shiatsu can be attributed to the release of endorphins that happens during the massage, as well as what’s known as the gate-control theory. According to this, stimulating large nerve fibers through massage inhibits the activity of transmission cells that carry pain signals to the brain.
Fibromyalgia is a rheumatologic disorder that includes widespread musculoskeletal or muscular pain and a lowered pressure pain threshold (the amount of pressure or force that a person can withstand before experiencing pain). People with this condition may also experience fatigue and poor sleep. Researchers have found that shiatsu can be helpful for fibromyalgia patients by reducing the intensity of pain, improving the pressure pain threshold, and enhancing the quality of sleep.
Shiatsu massage can relieve anxiety and promote relaxation. One study looking at patients scheduled for chemotherapy found that those who received shiatsu showed lower anxiety than the group that didn’t.
According to the conceptual basis of shiatsu, the energy associated with the kidneys is the source of nourishment for the baby during pregnancy, and this diversion of energies is the cause of related symptoms like lower backache or heavy and tired legs. So, working on the bladder meridian – which supports the kidneys – can help with issues like morning sickness as well as other aches and pains during pregnancy. There is also some evidence that practicing shiatsu can be helpful in cases of post-term pregnancy: Women who use specific acupoints are more likely to go into spontaneous labor. What’s great about shiatsu is that an expectant mother and her partner can be taught the specific acupoints and meridians to help with backache, morning sickness, or post-term pregnancy, and be able to practice it on their own.
A study that looked at women with breast cancer who were undergoing chemotherapy found that those who were using finger acupressure on acupoints by the knee and on the forearm reported significantly lower incidence and intensity of nausea. There is also evidence that stimulating a specific acupuncture point (known as P6, which is found about three finger widths under the wrist) can help with nausea and may even work better than antiemetic medication. This is especially valuable for those who suffer motion sickness.
Shiatsu can even have a positive effect on mental health. A pilot study on patients with schizophrenia showed that it can bring about improvements in depression, anxiety, and psychopathy. Moreover, it was found that the gains made were sustained for 12 weeks.
When To Avoid Shiatsu
Massage is generally considered a safe therapy in the hands of a skilled practitioner. However, it may not be advisable for some cases involving skin infection, inflammation, deep vein thrombosis, fracture, burns, or a tumor.