Shiatsu providers are guided by meridian charts of the body which identify vital points where they can access the body’s qi. Special massage techniques that employ a variety of “finger pressures” are used along these meridians to promote health and wellbeing. 

Shiatsu providers believe that energy flows along meridians throughout the entire body and that disorders or illness occur when qi is disturbed, deficient or blocked. These blockages can result in a variety of physical ailments, including recurring headaches, body aches, gastrointestinal disturbances, ongoing allergies or upper respiratory conditions, and psychological distress (such as anxiety). Shiatsu providers are trained to recognize shifts or blocks in energy flow and through a series of movements that stimulate the flow of qi to realign or balance the energy and restore health and wellbeing. 

While shiatsu originated in Asia, it is practiced throughout the world. It is especially popular in Europe where it is often used as a routine healthcare treatment. Although the basic premises and body manipulations are standardized, providers will adopt individual styles practice techniques.

Why should I use Shiatsu?

Many of the studies about shiatsu have been published in Japanese medical journals with few occurring in the United States. Therefore, much of the evidence available in English is anecdotal or clinical evidence. However, there is preliminary evidence that indicates that shiatsu effectively:

  • Reduces muscular-skeletal stiffness and pain, fatigue, anxiety and nausea/vomiting;
  • Improves breathing and decreases distress associated with asthma & bronchitis;
  • Decreases the frequency of recurring headaches;
  • Decreases stress;
  • Improves mood and quality of life;
  • Improves menstrual symptoms;
  • Improves digestive disorders such as constipation, gas and bloating;
  • Improves insomnia; and
  • Improves lower back pain

The literature reports that cancer survivors have found that shiatsu is specifically effective for symptom management post-operatively and during chemotherapy. Shiatsu also provides comfort for end-of-life care for patients. 

It is important to note that while evidence is limited, clinical literature indicates that shiatsu is safe and well tolerated.

How does Shiatsu work?

There are several theories about how shiatsu might work. Among them are: 

A belief that there are pressure sensors located in pathways over the body connecting the body’s nervous system and transmitting signals to the body’s internal organs, which then release hormones, endorphins or other chemicals. Pressure administered to these sensors, provided in the correct sequence and with the correct amount of pressure and stretch, change body signals in positive ways to improve health. 

A belief that the body’s internal energy or “Qi” resides in meridians or pathways throughout the body. This energy is evenly shared across body regions and organs although there are times when these pathways become disturbed. This disturbance causes the energy to be misaligned or unevenly distributed, resulting in physical, emotional, mental or spiritual symptoms. Placing pressure along critical or vital points found in the meridians can “undo” or “release” energy, re-establishing the proper flow and alignment, improving health and wellbeing.

Is Shiatsu right for me?

A shiatsu treatment typically lasts between 50 and 60 minutes for the session. The session will include a thorough examination where the practitioner will ask a series of questions related to your health. During the treatment, the practitioner will ask you to lie on a floor mat. You will be fully clothed, and asked to remove your shoes, all jewelry and make up. If you are unable to get onto the floor mat, a table can be used for the treatment. Patients are usually relaxed and comfortable throughout the session. 

Following the initial shiatsu treatment, you may have some mild side effects like a headache, muscle stiffness or fatigue. These side effects will generally pass within the hour after treatment. You should be able to safely operate a vehicle. If you feel discomfort during the session, please let your practitioner know what you are feeling and if you want him/her to discontinue the treatment. 

Typically, shiatsu treatments are repeated every 2 weeks or once a month. There are no contra indications regarding the number of sessions one should have. Sessions may cost between $50.00 and $80.00, depending on where you live. 

When considering shiatsu treatment, it is very important that you let your practitioner know your full health history. The practitioner can then avoid areas of the body that are sensitive or problematic. Also, notify your practitioner if you have circulation problems of the lower extremities (legs and feet) so that they can avoid long-term pressure in certain areas that can increases circulatory issues.

How do I talk to my healthcare provider about using Shiatsu?

Inform your healthcare provider about your use of shiatsu and your reason(s) for its use. When you discuss this with your provider, stress that you are not replacing your conventional care but are using shiatsu to complement the treatment and to help you deal with its effects. Be specific about what you are trying to accomplish with shiatsu and keep notes that summarize your responses. You may bring a print out to the Health care provider containing information about shiatsu. 

Do not stop taking any of your medication(s) without the approval of your health care provider. Although shiatsu may help reduce your need for some medication(s), you should only reduce medication dosages after a discussion your health care provider, not your shiatsu practitioner. Your healthcare provider will work with you to modify medication(s) as needed.

How do I choose a Shiatsu provider/class?

Licensure requirements for Shiatsu practicioners vary from state to state. Some massage schools include Shiatsu in their curriculum, but its very superficial. While Shiatsu practitioners do not need to be certified through a single organization, shiatsu practices may be required to have the appropriate business licenses 

The American Organization for Bodywork Therapies of Asia (AOBTA) represents Shiatsu therapists.  You can find a practitioner by visiting their website. In addition, Shiatsu practitioners can be nationally certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB).

Have others with cancer used Shiatsu?

Cancer survivors participating in shiatsu have stated that:

It’s transformed me… to say I’ve only had six sessions its really amazing stuff. It’s helped me more than tablets.  I’d much prefer to have shiatsu [than other forms of therapy] actually because it works best for me. 

I was able to control it [pain] so much easier than before. Having all the different techniques to try rather than going straight for the medication. 

I did very much appreciate the personal touch that she [the shiatsu practitioner] put into it, and you felt as though you were her only, if you like, patient… I can only commend somebody for that, which I never felt that I got from the doctors here… 

I just really looked forward to coming… not to just the treatment but to talk through things because sometimes when you go to the doctors they’re so busy and they’re just waiting to get you out for the next one to go in… but when you come to the [shiatsu] clinic, you’ve got sort of time to have a chat and unwind. 

I like shiatsu because you’ve got the control… it’s given me some sort of power over what I’m doing… before it would have been, “I better get to the doctors”.

What is Shiatsu like?

If you are interested in Shiatsu and would like to see a demonstration before you try it yourself, we invite you to watch a video featuring Shiatsu practicioner Marco Prado.

Mikayla D. Williams , BS student , University of Arizona
Nita Slater, MS, RN , Clinical Instructor , University of Arizona, College of Nursing
Expert Reviewers: 
Marco Prado , Shiatsu therapist
Mary Koithan, PhD, RN-C, CNS-BC , Director, Community Cancer Connections, Associate Dean, Professional and Community Engagement and Associate Professor , UA College of Nursing