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Shiatsu

Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage therapy quite similar to acupressure; in fact, the word shiatsu literally means "finger pressure." As with acupressure, the concepts of shiatsu hold that it can promote health and facilitate healing by correcting energy imbalances in the body. These imbalances are corrected by applying pressure to specific points along channels in the body known as meridians.

While there is no exact date as to when shiatsu originated, the technique is believed to be hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. In Japan, the practice of touching certain points was originally called anma (which means "push-pull"); this practice was employed more as a medical technique. Over time, anma fell out of favor as a form of health care, and was instead used for relaxation and pleasure. In the last century, though, practitioners began to realize the healing benefits associated with anma, particularly in its ability to reduce muscle tension and relief pain. These practitioners began promoting it as a way of treating illness, and changed the name of the therapy to shiatsu.

How does shiatsu work?

Shiatsu is usually delivered with the thumbs. However, some practitioners will use their fingers, palms, elbows — and even feet — to achieve the desired effect. Typically, a shiatsu practitioner will apply pressure not just to a few points on the body. The goal here is twofold: to release energy (qi in Chinese, ki in Japanese) in areas where it may be blocked or stagnating, and to bring energy back to areas that are depleted. In addition to applying pressure, shiatsu practitioners may manipulate the soft tissue over and around meridians, and perform passive and active stretching exercises as part of treatment.

Scientifically speaking, shiatsu is an excellent form of pain relief. Research has shown that applying extensive pressure initiates the release of endorphins, natural pain-killing substances produced by the body. Shiatsu may also lower the levels of adrenaline and other stress hormones, producing a relaxing effect.

Your first visit

A typical session with a shiatsu practitioner lasts 30 to 45 minutes, although an initial session will usually last a little longer. Depending on the condition being treated, a patient may need to see a practitioner between four and eight times; for a more chronic condition, such as low back pain or recurring headaches, patients may need a longer treatment regimen.

As with most health care providers, a shiatsu practitioner will begin the first visit by taking a detailed medical history, and asking the patient a variety of questions about his/her lifestyle, eating patterns, frequency of exercise, and so forth. A patient’s physical and emotional characteristics are also taken into account before the first treatment is delivered.

Shiatsu is administered with the patient lying fully clothed, either on a mat or table. The practitioner will touch certain parts of the body, often starting with the abdomen or lower back, to determine the areas where energy is blocked or reduced. Treatment will focus on these areas to restore energy flow, reduce pain and ease tension.

Shiatsu is generally pleasing; however, different patients may experience different responses. Some people feel so relaxed while receiving shiatsu that they fall asleep; others may feel invigorated and have more energy. Still other patients may experience gurgling noises in the stomach, or shudders or spasms as tension is released. These feelings are not unusual, and a good practitioner will be supportive and act accordingly.

What are the benefits and advantages of being treated with shiatsu? Are there any drawbacks?

Shiatsu has many benefits not normally seen with most forms of Western medicine. It is non-invasive; no needles or instruments are used, and the skin isn’t punctured while treatment is being delivered. In addition, because shiatsu doesn’t involve the use of drugs or pharmaceuticals, there are no side-effects.

Shiatsu is also quite cost-effective. Although a patient will have to visit a practitioner to receive the full benefits of shiatsu, some treatments can be self-performed.

Shiatsu has been shown to be quite effective in relieving a variety of conditions such as back, neck and shoulder pain, along with pain due to arthritis. People suffering from insomnia, headaches and menstrual cramps have also reported relief through shiatsu.

Shiatsu is not for everyone, however. There are some instances where treatment should be avoided. For instance, patients who have an open wound or infectious skin disease; are prone to blood clots or have had surgery recently; have a fracture or sprain; or have recently had chemotherapy or radiation therapy, should not be treated with shiatsu. Patients should avoid shiatsu specifically in the abdominal area if they are in the first three months of pregnancy; have an abdominal hernia, or have eaten within the past two hours.

Is shiatsu part of traditional Chinese medicine?

Since shiatsu is believed to have originated in Japan, it technically could not be considered a form of traditional "Chinese" medicine; however, it is considered a form of Asian bodywork, and is based on many of the same principles seen in some forms of TCM, such as acupuncture and tai chi.

How can I find a shiatsu practitioner near me?

The American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia (www.aobta.org) maintains a directory of shiatsu practitioners on its website. Because shiatsu involves extensive touching, prospective patients are advised to choose only a practitioner they feel comfortable with, and to speak with the therapist first before going in for treatment.

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