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Shiatsu

Shiatsu is based on traditional Japanese massage therapy.

Summary

  • Shiatsu works with the body's energy flow, known as Ki or Qi (pronounced chee).
  • It uses acupressure to release tension and bring balance to the body.
  • It can help to lift your mood and make you feel relaxed.

What is shiatsu?

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 it

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 and 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.

How you have it

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.

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 for cancer

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. Most of the studies that have been done to date are small. 

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.

A very small observational study (21 patients) in 2017 looked at giving shiatsu to cancer patients in a day hospital. They found that shiatsu helped the patients feel more relaxed, have an improved feeling of well being and they experienced improved quality of sleep. 

How much 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.

A word of caution

Shiatsu is generally considered safe. Just make sure that your practitioner has undergone proper training. It is fine to ask how many years training they have had and how long they have been practising. 

Last reviewed: 
13 Dec 2018
  • Shiatsu in oncology: a treatment of healing processess' activation. Observational study.

    S Geremia and others.

    Annals of Oncology. November 2017 

  • Acupressure bands do not improve chemotherapy-induced nausea control in pediatric patients receiving highly emetogenic chemotherapy: A single-blinded, randomized controlled trial.

    Dupuis LL and others. 

    Cancer. March 2018; Vol 124, Issue 6.

  • 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

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

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