Shiatsu massage therapy is a Japanese healing modality with roots in Anma, a traditional form of Japanese massage.
It’s not as well-known as other forms of massage but is growing in popularity in the UK for reducing pain, anxiety, migraines, digestive issues, and sinusitis.
In this article, we explore the origins of shiatsu massage, how it works, and what you can expect from a shiatsu session. We’ll also cover the difference between shiatsu massage and acupressure massage.
What is shiatsu?
Shiatsu (pronounced shee-aytsu) massage therapy is an ancient bodywork system.
In Japanese, the term ‘shiatsu’ means ‘finger pressure’. Practitioners apply finger and thumb pressure to various points along the body. It is typical for practitioners to apply a soft, deep pressure, which is totally painless.
The origins of shiatsu massage therapy
Tokujiro Namikoshi, one of the pioneers of shiatsu as it evolved in the 20th century, is credited with getting shiatsu accepted by the Ministry of Health in Japan.
However, shiatsu originates from a traditional Japanese massage therapy known as Anma. It evolved over years into what we know as Shiatsu today, incorporating many of the common techniques in the process. In 1964, the Japanese government acknowledged shiatsu as a healing modality.
How does shiatsu massage work?
There are two main styles of shiatsu with many others deriving from them. They are Namikoshi shiatsu and Masunaga shiatsu.
Namikoshi shiatsu is considered as the official style of shiatsu in Japan. It believes the benefits of shiatsu are obtained by balancing the autonomic nervous system, and only teaches anatomy and physiology.
Masunaga shiatsu is sometimes called Zen shiatsu in the West and follows the TCM principle that the body is a source of Qi (or life force energy) that flows through 12 main energy channels called meridians. TCM believes that blockages or disruptions to this energy flow are the root cause of illness.
Masunaga shiatsu massage uses pressure to stimulate certain spots, known as acupoints, which run along the energy meridians. This improves the internal energy system and enhances the flow of vital Qi energy. In doing so, shiatsu restores the body’s ability to regulate and self-heal.
When and how is Shiatsu massage therapy applied?
Shiatsu massage is a complementary therapy safe for use alongside conventional treatments.
Unlike forms of western massage therapy, shiatsu is a “dry” massage therapy that uses no oils and doesn’t require you to remove clothing.
In Japan, shiatsu massage is most commonly given on a low massage table. However, futons, mats and beds are common too. All of these allow the therapist to use their weight to apply a soft, deep pressure. Outside of Japan, it is most common to see therapists given massages on futons and mats.
On a physical level, gentle manipulation and stretching techniques also relieve tension, realign the musculoskeletal system, and improve your range of motion.
What is the difference between shiatsu massage and acupressure massage?
Shiatsu and acupressure massage share many commonalities – they are both dry therapies and in the case of Masunaga shiatsu and acupressure both target acupoints on the body to balance the Qi system. But there are several differences.
Shiatsu uses sustained, deep pressure with specific thumb and finger positions to stimulate the meridian points. Practitioners often use their body weight to increase pressure. On the other hand, acupressure massage applies lighter finger pressure in circular or pumping motions.
Shiatsu massage helps a broad range of conditions
Shiatsu massage therapy may help a wide range of symptoms and conditions by stimulating your body’s healing capabilities. It may also boost feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.
Some of the most common reasons people seek shiatsu massage include:
- Chronic pain1
- Fatigue and weakness
- Stress and anxiety1
- Poor posture
- Digestive conditions
- Skin conditions
- Respiratory symptoms
- Muscle tension
- Poor immunity
- Hormonal imbalances
Many people use shiatsu as preventative health care to avoid future health issues.
What is the evidence to support shiatsu massage therapy?
The body of evidence to support shiatsu massage therapy is small, and researchers often conflate shiatsu and acupressure massage.
That said, limited clinical evidence suggests shiatsu is beneficial for:
- Easing anxiety2
- Lowering pain associated with burns3
- Reducing depression associated with Alzheimer’s disease4
- Reducing chronic lower back pain5
- Improving fatigue, pain, sleep, and quality of life in people with Multiple Sclerosis6
A 2015 study of post-term pregnancies found that shiatsu massage initiated spontaneous labour in 56.9% of participants7. It is an effective complementary therapy for inducing labour naturally (when used under medical supervision).
What to expect from shiatsu massage
Let us ease your mind by explaining exactly what happens at a shiatsu massage appointment.
The shiatsu massage appointment
A typical Shiatsu session lasts 60-90 minutes. In your initial session, the therapist asks about your current health concerns and goals. They may ask you various questions about your lifestyle and emotional state to help identify the presence of energy blockages or weak organ systems.
Next, you’ll typically lie down on a futon or mat although some therapists use a low massage table. In the case where patients are in hospital or have mobility issues it is usually possible to receive treatment in a bed or even a wheelchair. During the hands-on treatment, the therapist gently leans forward, using their body weight to apply sustained pressure to different points on the body. You may need to change position to allow the therapist to have more extensive access.
You are encouraged to speak up if you experience pain or feel uncomfortable.
At the end of the session, you slowly get up when you feel ready. The practitioner will give you a glass of water, discuss the treatment with you, and advise you on the number of sessions you may need.
You’re encouraged to drink plenty of water and take it easy for the rest of the day to allow your system to settle and adjust to the treatment.
How do I find a qualified shiatsu massage therapist?
In the UK, shiatsu therapy isn’t regulated by law. So, there are no minimum training requirements. However, professional bodies are working to regulate the practice of shiatsu therapy.
Bodies like the UK Shiatsu Society and the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) ensure practitioners have adequate training, are insured, and abide by a code of ethics.
The best way to find a qualified practitioner is to ask a friend, family member, or a doctor for a recommendation. However, always double-check the practitioner’s qualifications before booking an appointment.
You can also browse our Treatwiser practitioner directory for trained shiatsu therapists in your area.
How much will it cost?
A private shiatsu session usually costs between £60 and £100 per hour. That said, some hospitals and hospices offer shiatsu treatments to cancer patients for free or at a reduced cost.
How many appointments will I need?
The number of shiatsu appointments needed is unique to each person. However, it is common to have a session every two or three weeks to start. This may reduce to one session every month or two for maintenance.
Some people have a standing appointment once a month as a preventative measure.
Does shiatsu massage hurt?
Shiatsu massage is not supposed to hurt. Practitioners apply a soft, deep pressure, which is totally painless.
In a small number of cases, patients may experience some muscle stiffness. This isn’t dangerous and should disappear within a few days.
Are there any risks associated with shiatsu massage treatments?
Shiatsu is a low-risk therapy safe for most people. However, shiatsu may induce labour and is not recommended for high-risk pregnancies. In addition, it may not suit people with bleeding disorders.
As with every new therapy, always consult your healthcare provider to see if it’s the right fit.
- Browne, Bush and Cabo (2018). Relieving pressure – An evaluation of Shiatsu treatments for cancer & palliative care patients in an NHS setting. European Journal of Integrative Medicine.
- Ardabili et al. (2015). The effect of shiatsu massage on underlying anxiety in burn patients. World J Plast Surg.
- Ardabili et al. (2014).The effect of shiatsu massage on pain reduction in burn patients. World J Plast Surg.
- Lanza et al. (2019). Comment on “Shiatsu as an Adjuvant Therapy for Depression in Patients With Alzheimer’s Disease: A Pilot Study”. J Evid Based Integr Med.
- Kobayashi et al. (2019). Shiatsu for chronic lower back pain. Complementary Therapies in Medicine.
- Stergios Tsiormpatzis. (2019). Effects of shiatsu on the health-related quality of life of a person with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. European Journal of Integrative Medicine.
- Teimoori et al. (2014). Evaluation effect of shiatsu technique on labor induction in post-term pregnancy. Glob J Health Sci.