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Shiatsu Manual Therapy May Offer Relief for Your Aches and Pains

Updated on May 8, 2022
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Lyndon Henry is a writer, journalist, editor, and writing-editing consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @LHenry_rch


Muscular aches and pains a problem?

Analgesics only help up to a point — and you can build up a tolerance to them, so they lose effectiveness.

What kinds of alternative therapies are available? For chronic pain, some nutritional supplements may be helpful (see my article Migraine Headaches? Alternative Remedies That Have Worked for Me...).

"Finger pressure" therapy

Particularly to deal with muscle pain, many people turn to massage. Here's a therapy that somewhat falls into that category — it's called shiatsu, and I've found it has worked for me extremely well in relieving severe muscular aches and prolonged pain.

According to the Shiatsu Association, shiatsu therapy is a quite unique type of manual therapy from Japan. Translated literally, the word shiatsu means "finger pressure", and it refers to non-invasive but intense manual pressure, applied to various areas of the body, with the aim to stimulate what practitioners consider to be the body's inherent ability to heal itself. (In my experience, there's no need to undress or change clothes — shiatsu is administered while I'm wearing my normal, everyday clothing.)

Shiatsu therapy involves systematically applying pressure, primarily by using the thumbs, to various specific points on the soft tissues of the body. According to practitioners, this is done in order to both assess and treat a variety of conditions. It's believed that shiatsu treatments have some kind of regulatory influence on the body's autonomic nervous system, and through that process, organ function can be improved and muscle tension reduced.

Personal experience

Whatever ... All I can say is that shiatsu therapy has worked reliably and well for me, especially with episodes of very severe, prolonged muscular pain. One example is severe back pain from some heavy lifting. Another particularly painful episode resulted from a flipover crash on my bicycle (stopped too quickly and flipped). No broken bones, but that little mishap produced prolonged shoulder and arm pain that rendered one arm virtually unusable.

Shiatsu made the pain in both situations just disappear — it "evaporated". I don't glibly use the term "miraculous", but if I'd apply it anywhere, it would be in these cases. (For me, "miraculous" refers to beneficial occurrences we can't immediately explain, although perhaps eventually human ingenuity will figure out the explanation.)

Shiatsu has also helped relieve my more minor, but serious and ongoing, muscular pain problems — conditions like recurrent back and neck pain from longterm sitting at the computer, various hand or foot cramps, etc. These are probably more or less "normal" problems you get as your body grows older, but can also be the result of work activities, vigorous exercise, etc. Shiatsu therapy hasn't stopped the recurrence of occasional aches and pains, but it does make the pain "evaporate" and "resets" the cycle. Some of my severe muscle-cramping problems have virtually disappeared.

More about shiatsu

Moving on from my personal testimonial ... here's a bit more about shiatsu therapy in general.

A useful article ("The Magic of Shiatsu Massage") featured several years ago on the website describes shiatsu therapy as a "complete massage technique for healing and relaxation", and places its origins in medieval Japan, about 700 years ago. In the therapy, says the article, the fingers, thumbs, and palms are used, with an aim of influencing specific points related to the central and peripheral nervous systems. Additional techniques, including elbow and knee pressures, and even feet, may be used.

Another overview of shiatsu emphasizes that this form of therapy can "play a valuable role in any wellness program...." Among a number of potential health benefits, this discussion suggests that shiatsu...

• Vitalizes the skin, promoting softness and resilience to reduce signs of aging.

• Limbers muscles for improved tone, facilitating proper joint alignment.

• Stimulates circulation of blood and lymph, supplying increased nourishment to and removing waste from all of the body’s cells.

• Regulates neural functioning.

• Stimulates somatovisceral reflexes to regulate organ function.

• Regulates hormonal secretions.

• Adjusts the spine and promote[s] correct posture and skeletal alignment.

• Promotes healthy digestion for proper absorption of nutrients and regular elimination.

• Strengthens the immune system.

• Reduces stress and promotes greater mind-body integration.

Shiatsu manual therapy
Shiatsu manual therapy | Source

Zen and Seiki shiatsu

There are several different types of shiatsu therapy. They're all fairly similar, of course, but there are minor variants that distinguish them. Here are a couple that, from my experience, seem especially effective in relieving pain.

Zen shiatsu is perhaps the most common technique. According to the Tao Health Clinic in Austin, Texas, the Zen shiatsu school regards all health problems as related to "imbalances in yin and yang, or disharmonies between the internal organs and blockages to the circulation of ki, or energy, through the meridians." Also see: Holistic Health: The Basics of Zen Shiatsu Massage.

A Zen shiatsu treatment session begins by evaluating the abdominal region (hara). By identifying meridian diagnosis points and palpating them, the shiatsu practitioner accurately identifies what the discipline calls meridians to be treated in the patient's body.

Similar to Zen shiatsu, Seiki shiatsu aims to treat imbalances and restore harmony, according to its practitioners. Tao Health Clinic describes Seiki shiatsu as "a natural evolution of the teachings of Shizuto Masunaga sensei and Ryokyu Endo sensei", and emphasizes that the central principle recognizes our inherent ability to heal ourselves. By applying direct, penetrating pressure, according to practitioners, Seiki shiatsu accesses a individual’s sei ki, "the naturally healing energy that lies at the very core of their being." Practitioners believe that by touching the sei ki, what they call the ja ki, "sick" or "stuck" energy, is released, and healing occurs.

Seiki shiatsu treatment sessions tend to be quite intense, and the recipient can expect to experience some discomfort as (according to the view of the discipline) one's body transitions back into a state of harmony. "This discomfort is small compared to the deep and lasting healing that Seiki shiatsu can [effect]", says the Tao Health Clinic website.

Therapy that "melts" pain away

In my own experience with Seiki shiatsu, there are episodes with moderate discomfort and pain during the therapy. However, within about 15 to 30 minutes after therapy, all pain is gone — including severe pain that may have endured for days or even weeks. Following my cycling accident, described above, the debilitating pain that had made one arm nearly useless seemed to "melt" away — "dissolve" — immediately following the session. I regained full use of the arm.

Bouts of pain elsewhere (other limbs, neck, back, etc.) have similarly responded well. Pain does flare up here and there (probably a byproduct of somatic aging plus long spells at the PC), but monthly shiatsu "maintenance" helps manage this.

Shiatsu manual therapy may not work for everyone, or it may not work as well as it has for me. I can't personally say whether it would work for pain other than skeletal or muscular. I would say that, for anyone experiencing chronic or prolonged pain distress — particularly skeletomuscular — shiatsu therapy is worth considering.

Originally posted 2012/03/30

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 Lyndon Henry


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