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What shiatsu is

Shiatsu is based on traditional Japanese massage therapy. The word shiatsu literally means finger pressure and you may also hear it called shiatsu massage or shiatsu body work. Shiatsu has become popular in the Western world over recent years. Many complementary therapy centres offer shiatsu.

The principle behind shiatsu is related to the energy flow, known as Ki or Qi (pronounced chee), through your body. According to shiatsu therapists, disruption to this energy flow can cause illness and disease. Like acupuncture, shiatsu claims to free blockages to the Ki flow and restore energy to areas where it is low. A shiatsu specialist does this by pressing on or stretching points on your body that lie along the lines of energy called meridian channels. 

Shiatsu practitioners believe that the therapy stimulates the circulation of your blood, helps to release toxins and tension from your muscles, and stimulates your hormonal system. This is believed to help the body heal itself.


Why people with cancer use shiatsu

One of the main reasons that people with cancer use shiatsu is that it makes them feel good. Shiatsu therapists promote the therapy as a natural way to help you relax and cope with

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Pain
  • Nausea

Generally, therapists believe that freeing your energy flow can help to lift your mood and improve your wellbeing.

Some people with cancer use shiatsu to help control symptoms and side effects such as poor appetite, sleep problems, pain, and low mood. They say that it helps them to cope better with their cancer and its treatment. After a shiatsu treatment people feel very relaxed and have higher energy levels.


Research into shiatsu

There is no scientific evidence to prove that shiatsu can cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer. Also, a lack of high quality research so far means there is currently no scientific evidence to support the use of shiatsu for controlling cancer symptoms. This doesn't mean that shiatsu doesn't work in controlling symptoms or side effects, simply that it has not yet been tested properly. 

Studies into the general effects of shiatsu

In 2008, a Europe wide study looked at the effects of shiatsu. 948 people had shiatsu from 1 of 85 shiatsu practitioners in Austria, Spain, and the UK. The researchers looked at the effects of the treatment 4 to 6 days after the first session, and then after 3 and 6 months. People had shiatsu treatment to help reduce problems with muscles, joints, or body structure, to relieve tension or stress, or to reduce low energy and tiredness. The researchers found that patients reported a moderate improvement in symptoms over the 6 months.

After the 6 months, more than three quarters of people said that they had made changes to their lifestyle as a result of having shiatsu. Between 16 and 22% had lowered their use of conventional medicine and between 15 and 34% had lowered their use of medicines. The authors said that shiatsu seems to have a role in maintaining and improving general health.

In 2006, Thames Valley University carried out a large systematic review of studies that looked at shiatsu and how well it worked. In 2010 they updated the review. Although they found 1,714 potentially relevant studies, only a small number related to shiatsu itself and the others were on acupressure. Acupressure and shiatsu use the same points and are based on the meridian system of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Acupressure is one of the techniques used in shiatsu practice. 

The reviewers looked at 9 shiatsu studies and 80 acupressure studies. The shiatsu studies covered a wide range of health issues including chronic stress, schizophrenia, promoting well being, health awareness, heart conditions, low back pain, shoulder pain, fibromyalgia (a condition of pain in the muscles and soft tissues of the body), and inducing childbirth. 1 study looked at using shiatsu to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. The evidence from the review was very limited and the authors said that the quality of the research methods used in the studies was generally poor. So we don't know whether shiatsu can help in these conditions. The reviewers recommended carrying out more studies of better quality. 

Studies using acupressure

The studies looking at acupressure seemed to show that it worked well for pain, especially period pain, lower back pain, and pain during childbirth. But there was no strong evidence that acupressure could help to reduce nausea and vomiting. There was strong evidence that acupressure can help to improve sleep in elderly people. It was not clear whether acupressure can help in stroke, mental health issues or chronic breathing conditions. Some studies seemed to show that acupressure might be able to help patients with kidney disease, eyesight problems, or cancer therapy side effects other than nausea and vomiting. 

Several studies have looked specifically at the effects of acupressure on controlling symptoms of sickness in people with cancer. A study in the UK in 2007 found that stimulating acupressure points on the wrist can help to control sickness after surgery. Some cancer hospitals use anti sickness bracelets as a way of controlling nausea. But there is currently no strong evidence to prove that it helps sickness caused by chemotherapy or radiotherapy in people with cancer.

We need more research to find out whether shiatsu can help people with cancer.


What shiatsu involves

On your first visit for shiatsu your therapist will ask you some general questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. They might ask you about your diet, sleep patterns and how you feel emotionally.

Many therapists will begin your treatment by gently touching your abdominal area (called hara in Japanese). This helps them find out about your body’s energy levels and which areas of your body need attention. If your therapist is worried that shiatsu could interfere with your health or any drugs you take, they may want to check with your GP before going ahead. In general, this rarely happens, but there may be situations where your therapist and doctor recommend that you don’t use shiatsu.

A shiatsu treatment session usually lasts about an hour. You don’t have to undress and you usually lie down on a futon type mattress on the floor to have the treatment. But if you can’t lie down, you can have shiatsu sitting up. It is best to wear very lose fitting clothing like a tracksuit or cotton baggy trousers. Therapists can apply pressure to the energy points using their fingers, thumbs, elbows, knees and sometimes even their feet.


Possible side effects of shiatsu

Generally, shiatsu is a safe therapy. After your first treatment you may have some mild side effects such as headache and muscle stiffness. You may also feel very tired. But these symptoms usually pass within a few hours. If they continue you can contact your shiatsu practitioner for advice.

There are some conditions that mean your therapist should use a more gentle type of shiatsu. These might include low platelet levels in the blood or weakened bones (osteoporosis). If you have a high temperature (fever) your therapist may want to delay your treatment until you have recovered. The important thing is that your shiatsu therapist takes a full history from you, so they are aware of any other health problems you have.

In the first three months of pregnancy your therapist should avoid certain points on your body because pressure on these points might increase the risk of miscarriage.


The cost of shiatsu therapy

If you have shiatsu treatments privately, it will usually cost between £30 and £60 for a one hour treatment. It is very important that you have your treatments with a qualified therapist. There is information about finding a qualified therapist further down this page.

A few cancer centres and hospitals in the UK may offer patients shiatsu treatments free of charge. You can ask your nurse or doctor if this is an option where you have your treatment. If not, they may be able to direct you to voluntary organisations that can offer complementary therapy treatments free or at a low cost.


Finding a shiatsu therapist

At the moment in the UK, registering as a shiatsu therapist is voluntary and coordinated by the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Shiatsu practitioners don't have to register by law and do not have to finish special training. But most reputable shiatsu therapists belong to the Shiatsu Society. The best way to find a reliable teacher is to

  • Contact the Shiatsu Society and ask for a list of reputable therapists in your area
  • Ask the therapist how many years of training they've had, how long they've been practicing and if they have experience in treating people with cancer
  • Ask if they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)

Shiatsu organisations

There are a few different shiatsu organisations. The Shiatsu Regulatory Group (SRUK) is working to develop a common set of practice and training standards. They report to the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).

The Shiatsu Society is the national network for shiatsu students, graduates, practitioners and teachers. It also has a register of practitioners.

Shiatsu Society (UK)
PO Box 4580
CV21 9EL

Phone: 0845 130 4560

You can also look at our list of complementary therapy organisations.

Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC)
CNHC is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners and covers shiatsu practitioners. Its key function is to improve public protection by giving the general public access to a list of practitioners who meet national standards of competence and practice. Registered practitioners are able to use the CNHC quality mark on certificates and publicity materials.

Phone: 0207 653 1971

The Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT)
18 Shakespeare Business Centre
Hathaway Close
SO50 4SR
Phone: 023 8062 4350

The Federation of Holistic Therapists is the leading professional association for complementary therapists. They have a register of therapists who are qualified, insured, and who follow the FHT strict Code of Conduct and Professional Practice.

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Updated: 5 February 2015