Decorative image


Shiatsu is based on traditional Japanese massage therapy.

The word shiatsu means finger pressure in Japanese. 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.

Generally, Shiatsu therapists believe that freeing your energy flow can help to lift your mood and improve your wellbeing. They promote the therapy as a natural way to help you relax and cope with:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • pain
  • feeling sick (nausea)

Some people with cancer say that it helps them cope better with their cancer and its treatment because it helps control symptoms and side effects such as:

  • poor appetite
  • sleep problems
  • pain
  • low mood

After Shiatsu they feel very relaxed and have higher energy levels.

What having treatment involves

On your first visit, 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. They might also need to check with your GP if they think having shiatsu could interfere with your health or any other treatments you are having. Rarely, there might be situations where your therapist and doctor recommend that you don’t use shiatsu.

You won’t have to undress for the treatment. But it is best to wear loose clothing like a tracksuit or cotton trousers so that you can be comfortable. You usually have therapy sitting or lying down on a futon mattress on the floor.

Many therapists will begin by gently touching your tummy (abdominal) area. This is called hara in Japanese. This helps them learn your body’s energy levels and which areas need attention.

Therapists can apply pressure to the energy points using their fingers, thumbs, elbows, knees and sometimes even their feet.

A treatment session usually lasts about an hour.

Possible side effects

Shiatsu is generally safe to have.

You might have some mild side effects such as headache and muscle stiffness after treatment. You may also feel very tired. These symptoms usually pass within a few hours, but you should contact your therapist for advice if they continue.

It is important that your shiatsu therapist takes your full medical history, so that they are aware of any other health problems you have.

Your therapist should use a more gentle type of shiatsu if you have conditions such as:

  • low platelet levels in the blood
  • weakened bones (osteoporosis)

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

Your therapist may want to delay your treatment until you have recovered if you have a high temperature (fever).

Research into shiatsu

There is no scientific evidence that shiatsu can cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer.

We also need more research to find out how it can help people with cancer control symptoms and side effects.

There has been general research into shiatsu and acupressure. Acupressure is one of the techniques used in shiatsu practice. They are both based on the meridian system of Traditional Chinese Medicine and use the same pressure points.

In 2008, there was a Europe wide study into the effects of shiatsu. 948 people took part and had treatment 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 to help:

  • reduce problems with muscles, joints, or body structure
  • relieve tension or stress
  • reduce low energy and tiredness

The researchers found that participants 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 which they updated in 2010.

They looked at 9 shiatsu studies and 80 acupressure studies.

1 study looked at using shiatsu to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.

The other shiatsu studies covered a wide range of health issues including:

  • schizophrenia
  • chronic stress
  • promoting health awareness and wellbeing
  • heart conditions
  • low back pain
  • shoulder pain
  • fibromyalgia (a condition of pain in the muscles and soft tissues of the body)
  • inducing childbirth

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 feeling and being sick (nausea and vomiting).

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 feeling or being sick.

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.

The reviewers recommended doing better quality research, because the research methods were poor and the evidence was limited.

A UK study in 2007 found that stimulating acupressure points on the wrist can help to control sickness after surgery.

There is currently no strong evidence to support that this works for people having sickness after chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

But some cancer hospitals do use anti sickness bracelets for people with cancer.

What it costs

Some UK cancer centres and hospitals offer shiatsu treatments free of charge. So ask if this is an option where you have your treatment. If it isn’t, your doctors or nurses might be able to direct you to voluntary organisations that will do the therapy for free or for a reduced cost.

Having shiatsu treatments privately usually costs between £30 and £60 for a one hour treatment.

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.

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful organisations

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

PO Box 4580
CV21 9EL

Phone: 0845 130 4560

CNHC is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners. It protects the public by giving them access to a list of practitioners who have met national standards of competence and practice. Registered practitioners can use the CNHC quality mark on certificates and publicity materials. Most NHS services only use CNHC registered practitioners.

46-48 East Smithfield

Phone: 0203 668 0406

The Federation of Holistic Therapists is the largest 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.

Phone: 023 8062 4350

Last reviewed: 
05 Feb 2015
  • Acupressure For Chemotherapy-Induced Nausea And Vomiting: A Randomized Clinical Trial
    S Dibble and others, 2007.
    Oncology Nursing Forum, Volume 34, Issue 4

  • The effectiveness of shiatsu: findings from a cross-European, prospective observational study.
    AF Long, 2008.
    Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.Volume 14, Issue 8

  • Shiatsu Review 2006
    Report on Shiatsu Society website 

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.