How Shiatsu Massage Reduces Both Stress & Pain - Dr. Axe

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How Shiatsu Massage Reduces Both Stress & Pain


Shiatsu massage - Dr. Axe

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, between July 2016 and July 2017, surveys reveal that approximately 19–24 percent of adult Americans have had a massage at least once in that one year time frame. (1) Shiatsu massage, which I’m about to tell you all about it, is one of several types of massage therapy and has been practiced for thousands of years.

According to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health, there has been a great deal of research to date that demonstrates how massage can benefit health, including back pain relief and an improved quality of life for people struggling with depression, cancer or HIV/AIDS. (2)

There are many amazing known benefits of Shiatsu massage as well comparisons between Shiatsu massage vs. Swedish massage vs. acupressure. But first, what is a Japanese Shiatsu massage?

What Is Shiatsu Massage?

Shiatsu is a physical, hands-on therapy designed to support and boost the body’s natural ability to heal and balance itself. Shiatsu massage aims to improve the health of the whole person including physical, emotional and psychological well-being. Shiatsu is often used as a preventative therapy or it can be employed as a compliment to conventional treatment.

Shiatsu means “finger pressure” in Japanese,  but Shiatsu massage techniques can include a therapist using more than just their fingers. Shiatsu massage therapists may also use their palms, elbows, knees and feet to apply pressure.


You can now find a shiatsu massage machine online or in stores, but it certainly is not the same as having a trained shiatsu therapist working on your body. Shiatsu is known to help with all kinds of health concerns including anxiety, depression, digestives issues, headaches, muscular tension and sinus congestion. (3)

Shiatsu vs. Acupressure vs. Swedish Massage

Acupressure is a type of touch therapy which follows the same principles as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture. Both acupuncture and acupressure focus on the stimulation of certain points located all over the body called acupressure points or pressure points. Acupressure uses finger pressure while acupuncture uses needles on these specific points. (4)

Sometimes shiatsu is referred to as acupressure or acupressure massage, but depending on who you ask, Shiatsu is its own unique form of massage therapy. For more clarification, this Shiatsu massage definition is helpful: Shiatsu is a manipulative therapy developed in Japan which incorporates techniques of anma (Japanese traditional massage), acupressure, stretching and Western massage. (5)

There’s no doubt that acupressure and Shiatsu massage both focus on acupressure points and encouraging healthy energy flow in the body, but many shiatsu practitioners put more of an emphasis on the body’s meridian lines than on pressure points. What are meridian lines? In TCM, meridian lines are considered to be pathways are channels in the body that carry energy and each of the twelve major meridians corresponds to a specific internal organ. (6)

Swedish massage is another common form of massage therapy and many people wonder, which is better: Swedish or shiatsu massage? Well, it depends on what you are looking for. Shiatsu practitioners tend to focus on meridian lines and pressure points to get rid of any energy blockages in the body and increase overall well-being. Swedish massage also focuses on the entire body and aims to improve overall circulation as well as physical and mental health.

It definitely depends on your goals and your massage therapist, but Shiatsu Japanese massage is often considered more therapeutic while a Swedish massage is considered to be a more relaxing massage option. A Swedish massage with light to firm pressure (depending on your personal preference) will include long, smooth strokes as well as some kneading and tapping. (7)

Both Swedish massage and shiatsu massage are known to reduce stress and improve circulation so it all depends on what you prefer. You might want to give them both a try and then choose which one you prefer going forward!

Related: Massage Gun Benefits, Best Types & Do They Really Work?

Health Benefits

What are the benefits of a Shiatsu massage? There are many possible benefits of this Japanese massage therapy including:

 1. Stress Reduction

Massage therapy is generally well-known for its ability to help with stress. If you’ve had a particularly rough week, a massage might likely be at the top of your wish list by time the weekend rolls around, if not before. Shiatsu massage can be a great choice if stress relief is your goal. According to a systematic review published in the BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal, “Shiatsu aims to balance, restore and maintain the body’s energy balance and prevent the build up of stress.” (8)

A case study published in 2014 has even shown that zen Shiatsu may be able to provide a practical alternative therapy option to relieve short-term as well as long-term stress levels in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. (9) A randomized, single-blind clinical trial published in 2018 also demonstrates how addressing specific acupressure points (like what is done in Shiatsu massage), can help to decrease anxiety and the need for pain killers for women in labor. (10)

2. Pain Management

Natural pain relief? Shiatsu massage is known for helping with all kinds of pain. Research has even shown that it can help with the pain experienced by burn victims. A clinical study of 120 burn patients published in 2014 found that Shiatsu to the hands and legs of the burn patients reduced pain. In addition, the researchers conclude that Shiatsu can be recommended along with analgesics to reduce the dosage. (11)

Multiple studies have shown that acupressure, the main component of a shiatsu massage, is an effective alternative medicine that can decrease lower back pain. (10, 11) One of these studies published in the Journal of Holistic Nursing evaluated how Shiatsu massage might help 66 patients experiencing lower back pain. Over time, the study subjects experienced a significant reduction in both pain and anxiety. The researchers also note that, “Extraneous variables such as gender, age, gender of therapist, length of history with lower back pain, and medications taken for lower back pain did not alter the significant results.” (12)

Shiatsu massage benefits - Dr. Axe

3. Anxiety Relief

If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, you probably already know how much finding healthy ways to reduce stress can really help. Massage therapy is a great therapeutic choice for stress and anxiety relief. Research has even shown that Shiatsu can help with the high levels of predictable anxiety often experienced by severe burn victims.

A study published in the World Journal of Plastic Surgery looks at the effects of Shiatsu massage on 60 burn patients with underlying pain. The anxiety levels of the patients were measured before and after massage using the Burn Specific Pain Anxiety Scale (BSPAS). The researchers conclude,”Based on our findings, 20 minutes of hand Shiatsu massage in conjunction with analgesic medications can be beneficial to control the anxiety of burn patients.” (13)


4. Improved Energy Flow

Practitioners of Shiatsu will tell you that the way this massage modality works is that it aims to improve the health of your entire body by positively affecting the body’s internal energy system. Using the TCM principles of acupressure and meridian lines, Shiatsu massage therapists apply pressure and massage the body in a very intentional way.

By stimulating these meridian lines and the acupressure points located along these lines, Shiatsu tries to accomplish its ultimate goal which is to remove blockages and encourage a healthy flow of the body’s vital energy, also known as qi or chi. (14)

History of Shiatsu Massage

Many experts say that Shiatsu evolved from anma, which is a traditional form of Japanese massage founded by Akashi Kan Ichi in 1320. (15) Even though Shiatsu is considered a form of Japanese massage, some sources say that Shiatsu got its start in China thousands of years ago. (16)

Tokujiro Namikoshi, who lived from 1905 to 2000, is often labeled as the inventor of modern Shiatsu. He developed his personal Shiatsu massage skills while helping to treat his mother’s rheumatoid arthritis. He founded the the Japan Shiatsu College around 1940 and to this day, he is remembered for making Shiatsu an independent method of treatment in Japan. Graduates of Namikoshi’s college have gone on to create other branches of Shiatsu Japanese massage, including Meridian Shiatsu, Zen Shiatsu and Hiron Shiastu. (17, 18)


Make sure you are receiving your Shiatsu massage, or any massage for that matter, from a trained massage professional. Training standards and certifications for massage therapists are different from state to state, but many state require that massage therapists have at least 500 hours of training from an accredited training program.
If you find a Shiatsu massage painful, always speak up and let your therapist know. Massages are often at their best when there is good communication between a therapist and client so that the massage can be adjusted to your particular feelings and goals.

According to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health, “Massage therapy appears to have few risks when performed by a trained practitioner.” However, massage therapists should take some precautions in people with certain health conditions or on certain medications including: (19)

  • Pregnant women: In some cases, pregnant women should not get massages so speak to your healthcare provider if you’re currently pregnant before getting a Shiatsu massage or any type of massage.
  • Cancer: Unless your health care provider approves it, massages that involve intense or deep pressure are not usually recommended for areas of the body where the patient has a tumor or cancer.
  • Bleeding disorders or low blood platelet counts: Typically, it’s recommended that people with these conditions to not receive any forceful or deep tissue massages.
  • Anticoagulants (blood thinners): Speak to your doctor before getting a massage if you are on blood thinning medication.

Another common massage precaution includes not receiving a massage on areas of the skin that are potentially weak or where the skin is broken such as a wound.

If you have any medical condition or are currently taking any medication, you can speak with your health care provider to make sure that Shiatsu massage is a good choice for you.

Final Thoughts

  • Shiatsu is a form of Japanese massage therapy meant to encourage the body’s natural ability to heal and balance itself.
  • Shiatsu massage therapists focus on the acupressure points and meridian lines which Traditional Chinese Medicine believes are so crucial to our physical as well as emotional, mental and spiritual health.
  • Benefits of Shiatsu massage include stress reduction, pain management, anxiety relief and increased energy flow.
  • Definitely check with your doctor before getting a Shiatsu massage if you have cancer, are pregnant, have a bleeding disorder or are currently taking medication such as blood thinners.

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