Shiatsu massage for back pain relief has been seen to be highly effective for many people, especially those with lower back pain. The technique is similar to acupressure and acupuncture in that it exerts pressure on meridians or energy channels according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.
A shiatsu massage therapist uses their fingers to exert controlled pressure on these energy channels. They may also carry out manipulations and stretches to help relieve energy blockages and pain.
Shiatsu massage for back pain – any evidence it works?
Several studies have found evidence that shiatsu massage can help relieve back pain symptoms. As with many complementary therapies for back pain, it is hard to separate out the benefits of shiatsu specifically from the overall benefits of massage or tactile interventions.
In one study, 66 people with lower back pain were assessed for pain and anxiety before and after four shiatsu massage treatments for back pain (Brady et al., 2001). The patients were called two days after each treatment and asked about their pain and anxiety.
The researchers found that with shiatsu massage both pain and anxiety levels decreased significantly over time. This remained the case even when controlling for age, gender, gender of therapist, medications, and the longevity of back pain. Patients treated with shiatsu massage for back pain said they would recommend it to others with lower back pain.
Shiatsu massage for fibromyalgia
One study looked specifically at the potential benefits of shiatsu massage for back pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia (Yuan et al., 2013). This pilot study involved 34 patients, half of whom received full-body shiatsu massage twice a week for eight weeks. The control group were given an educational booklet instead of massage, and all patients were assessed for pain and anxiety prior to, during, and after treatments. Patients were also assessed for sleep quality and the impact of symptoms on their health through the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire.
Patients with fibromyalgia who had shiatsu massage had significant improvements on all measures aside from anxiety, compared to the control group. This included a 40.6% decrease on the visual analog scale for pain, and a 76.4% improvement on the pressure pain threshold.
Patients who had shiatsu massage for back pain and other symptoms of fibromyalgia also had a 34.4% improvement in sleep quality. The impact of their symptoms on their health also improved by 22.3%, with no adverse effects reported. Almost all (94%) of the people in the shiatsu group were satisfied with the treatment.
Shiatsu massage for back pain – overview
While a handful of individual studies have reported benefits for shiatsu massage for back pain, such benefits were not seen in a 2011 review (Robinson et al., 2011). This review of nine studies included one randomized controlled trial (a high quality study) and three controlled studies that weren’t randomized. The other studies included obervational and within-subject studies (i.e. the same patient undergoing different treatments with a washout period).
The authors of this review concluded that there was insufficient evidence to suggest benefits of shiatsu massage for back pain or other health conditions. Given the handful of studies that do offer supportive evidence of efficacy, and the wealth of anecdotal evidence, further study seems warranted.
Shiatsu has the advantages of being non-invasive and very low risk for most people. It may help both physiologically and psychologically by supporting relaxation and endorphin release. Massage can help stimulate increased blood flow, bringing nutrients and oxygen to muscles. This could help in cases where back pain is related to soft tissue injuries or to the build-up of toxic metabolites in muscle.
Shiatsu massage for back pain may also help by reducing muscle tension. This can help enhance mobility and flexibility and decrease pain to enable good sleep. Massage also helps to stimulate the release of ‘feel-good’ endorphins, which can enhance mood and address anxiety. This may be especially beneficial for people with chronic back or neck pain.
Finding a shiatsu massage therapist
Many primary care physicians can now refer patients to a qualified shiatsu massage therapist. The American Massage Therapy Association also maintains a directory of trained and licensed massage therapy professionals.
Shiatsu massage for back pain is generally considered safe. However, it is smart to check with your primary care physician prior to any new treatment. Anyone with an infectious skin disease, rash, open wounds, varicose veins, or osteoporosis should avoid shiatsu massage.
In cases where shiatsu is not contraindicated but it is difficult to see a massage therapist regularly or at all, home shiatsu massage options are available. Back pain relief products such as hand-held massagers, massage pillows, and massage chairs can mimic shiatsu massage techniques.
Brady, L.H., Henry, K., Luth, J.F. 2nd, Casper-Bruett, K.K. (2001). The effects of shiatsu on lower back pain. J Holist Nurs. Mar;19(1):57-70.
Robinson, N., Lorenc, A., Liao, X. (2011). The evidence for Shiatsu: a systematic review of Shiatsu and acupressure. BMC Complement Altern Med, Oct 7;11:88.
Yuan, S.L., Berssaneti, A.A., Marques, A.P. (2013). Effects of shiatsu in the management of fibromyalgia symptoms: a controlled pilot study. J Manipulative Physiol Ther, Sep;36(7):436-43.