What Is It?
Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage therapy (the word shiatsu means “finger pressure” in Japanese). Advocates say the practice promotes health and healing by correcting energy imbalances in the body.
Shiatsu practitioners use their fingers, thumbs, palms, elbows, knees, and feet to apply pressure to points along the body’s main energy channels, known as meridians. The goal is to release energy where there are blockages and bring energy into areas that are depleted. Shiatsu, which is similar to acupressure, emphasizes the maintenance of health and the prevention of disease rather than treating a specific ailment.
Using massage to enhance well-being is a tradition that dates back to ancient China. The practice of touching specific points on the body was originally called anmo (anma by the Japanese). Over time, anma was dropped as a medical treatment and was used purely for pleasure and relaxation. In the twentieth century, however, a group of practitioners recognized the value of anma in easing muscle tension and soothing various kinds of aches and pains. They began promoting the art as a way to treat illness and changed the name to shiatsu.
How Does It Work?
Shiatsu is based on some of the same principles as acupuncture, tai chi, and other forms of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). According to TCM, illness is caused by imbalances in the flow of energy (qi in Chinese; ki in Japanese) in the body. Ki can accumulate and become trapped in points along the meridians known as tsubos, which correspond to Chinese acupressure points. Proponents believe that a shiatsu massage focused on these areas can clear blockages and help restore health by allowing energy to travel freely throughout the body.
A more scientific explanation for shiatsu’s pain-relieving ability is that it initiates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. It may also lower the levels of adrenaline and other stress hormones in the body, stimulating a relaxation response.
What You Can Expect
A shiatsu session usually lasts between 45 minutes and an hour. The number of sessions you’ll need depends on the nature of your ailment. It may take about four to eight treatments to resolve an acute problem, such as tension headaches; long-term chronic conditions, such as low back pain, will probably require a more extensive regimen.
The practitioner will begin your treatment by taking a medical history, asking questions about your lifestyle, past illnesses, diet, and how much you exercise. Your physical and emotional characteristics will also be observed and assessed.
During the treatment, you will lie fully clothed on a mat on the floor. The practitioner will touch certain areas of your body (often starting with your abdomen) to locate where your tension resides. The treatment will then focus on these areas, to lessen the tension and restore energy flow.
There are many different types of shiatsu massage, and your practitioner may use a combination of techniques, including pressing, holding, stretching, and rotating parts of the body. Practitioners of Zen shiatsu, for example, use their whole bodies as leverage to apply strong pressure, while barefoot shiatsu practitioners bring the feet into play, as well as the hands, to rub and press tsubos. Other techniques employ rubbing and kneading motions.
While the treatment is generally relaxing, you may experience odd-seeming reactions in your body, such as gurgling stomach noises or a shudder as you release tension. Or, if the therapist works on an area where you have been storing tension caused by emotional upset, you may feel like crying. This is not unusual. A good practitioner will act compassionately and be supportive.
At the end of the session, you will probably feel very relaxed and may wish to sleep. Some people, however, may feel invigorated and exuberant. This sense of well-being may last for a few days after a treatment.
Shiatsu is most often used to maintain general health and prevent illness. It can be especially useful for easing stress-related conditions. Proponents claim that the therapy can help relieve pain from arthritis as well as back, neck, and shoulder pain. People suffering from headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, and menstrual cramps have reported improvement with shiatsu. It may also bring relief from asthma, constipation, and nausea.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Look for a therapist who is certified by the American Oriental Bodywork Therapy Association (located in Voorhees, New Jersey). Because shiatsu involves touch, be sure to find someone you feel comfortable with. A word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend or coworker may be the best place to start. Having a short phone conversation with the therapist before you go for a visit can help you find out whether you could work together comfortably.
Avoid shiatsu massage if you:
Have an open wound, a rash, or an infectious skin disease such as impetigo.
Are prone to blood clots or have had recent surgery.
Have phlebitis, varicose veins, or another circulatory ailment.
Have a fracture or a sprain.
Have recently had chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Avoid massage in the area of a known tumor. Avoid massage specifically in the abdominal area if you:
Are in the first three months of pregnancy.
Have an abdominal hernia.
Have eaten within the past two hours.
David Edelberg, MD