Shiatsu is a Japanese form of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) derived from Traditional Chinese Medicine using deep pressure on the paths of the postulated acupuncture meridians. Clinical observations on this topic are said to be encouraging, especially for the treatment of sleep and conduct disorders, but there is a lack of empirical data.
The objective of this study was to examine the possible therapeutic effects of shiatsu in a clinical population of children treated in child and adolescent psychiatry. It was designed as a qualitative descriptive and non-interventional study, conducted on children treated in day-care hospital units and outpatient clinical settings. Shiatsu was administered, at least during 3 sessions, to children with an autism spectrum disorder or other disorders according to ICD-11 criteria (such as conduct disorders with impulsivity or attention deficit).
The evaluation was performed by two independent researchers (a child psychiatrist and a psychologist who were not the caregivers) based on direct observation of children during the shiatsu sessions, combined with semi-structured non-inductive interviews with their parents, and data collected from focus groups conducted with the children’s caregivers. A phenomenological interpretive analysis (IPA) approach with Nvivo coding software was used to analyze the data.
Based on semi-structured interviews with 13 parents cross-referenced with data from 2 focus groups and direct observations of 7 children during 2 full shiatsu sessions for each observation, the results show that shiatsu has positive effects on
- internal tension (a relief effect, notably on aggressive behaviors directed against others or self),
- sleep (including improvement of sleep quality),
- social interaction,
- verbalization of affects and traumatic memories of early childhood,
- perception of bodily limits.
As these children had several other treatments as well, it cannot be proved that the positive effects observed in this study are related specifically to shiatsu practice. Shiatsu may participate and facilitate the effects of other treatments. It is noteworthy that most of the children came willingly to the shiatsu sessions, ask their parents to repeat the shiatsu sessions at home, and indicate to the practitioner, from one session to the next, their elective body points where they wish to receive the application of shiatsu.
The authors concluded that the findings suggest therapeutic benefits of shiatsu, especially on externalize violence with a relief of aggressive behavior directed against others or self (knowing, moreover, that internal tension, sleep disorders and non-verbalization of affects or traumatic memories, all improved by shiatsu, are also all risk factors for externalize violence). These results highlight, therefore, the need to develop a daily practice of shiatsu in child and adolescent psychiatry. Further research is required to clarify the effects of shiatsu and ascertain better its underlying mechanisms based on this exploratory pilot study.
I do appreciate that, with a treatment that has not been submitted to many controlled clinical trials, researchers feel that they have to start from scratch, e.g. simple observations. However, they also must realize that their observations do not lend themselves to firm conclusions about the effects of the treatment. In the present case, the researchers do seem to be aware of this caveat but nevertheless make statements that go way beyond of what is warranted:
- the results show that shiatsu has positive effects on …
- Shiatsu may participate and facilitate the effects of other treatments
- the findings suggest therapeutic benefits of shiatsu, especially on externalize violence
- These results highlight, therefore, the need to develop a daily practice of shiatsu in child and adolescent psychiatry
I fear that these statements are not merely exaggerated but suspect they are also untrue. Testing them in properly controlled clinical trials would show whether my suspicion is correct. Meanwhile, I would like to remind
- and journal editors
of their duty to be truthful and not mislead the public.