MS sufferers say a little known complementary therapy from Japan is boosting their quality of life.
Shiatsu massage, which combines movement, stretches and acupressure points, is so popular some MS treatment centres across the UK have three or four therapists on site to meet demand.
MS is a neurological condition which causes severe fatigue, difficulty walking, muscle stiffness, painful spasms, headaches and vision problems. It affects 100,000 people in the UK with around 5,000 new diagnoses a year.
Sufferers say Shiatsu relieves pain and fatigue, boosts mobility and mood and makes it easier to cope with the hardships of life with an incurable illness.
Treatments last one hour and work the body from head to toe. Sessions are booked months in advance according to MS Treatment Centres in Bedford, Northamptonshire, Sussex and Cumbria.
Brighton mum Zia Rehma says life has transformed for the better since she discovered Shiatsu four years ago. “Treatments have been effective for addressing my MS symptoms on two levels, emotionally and physically. After a treatment I find my general mood has improved and on a physical level I have much more energy, my spasms are calmer and I have less stiffness in my legs,” she said.
Gary Menicou was a keen sportsman before his MS diagnosis 15 years ago – now he relies on a wheelchair to get around. The father of two from Brighton, said: “I must admit I was very cynical about the benefits of shiatsu but Wow after only a couple of weeks the difference was amazing. The treatment reduced my headaches and stiffness in legs and neck and altered my general mood positively. I really looked forward to my weekly session and my wife Dee will also agree how much nicer I was when I got home.”
Lisa Edmonde is conducting ground breaking research into the efficacy of Shiatsu for MS sufferers at Teeside University. The study, which is part funded by MS Society and Shiatsu Society research grants, follows ten therapists working with two patients each over six sessions. It monitors quality of touch, acupressure points and therapist technique. It is too early to report the results.
Lisa, who has been a Shiatsu therapist for 15 years, said: “Past experience suggests Shiatsu may have a lot to offer chronic, degenerative neuromuscular conditions such as MS. This ailment is myriad in its manifestations and Shiatsu appears to be a therapy that can respond to that because it is so versatile.
“Shiatsu elevates mood which may sound spurious and unscientific but it should not be underestimated how life changing that can be.”
Shiatsu’s adaptability and varied techniques may explain why it is a favourite with MS sufferers. It can be performed through clothes on a bed or in a wheelchair and incorporates the invigorating stretches recommended by the government health body NICE in its guidance notes for MS.
Until now there has been no research looking specifically at Shiatsu and MS. However, studies exploring the benefits of acupressure and massage have had encouraging results. In 2013 Researchers in Iran found that Swedish massage reduced pain, improved balance and walking speed for MS. In the same year a Canadian study discovered patient wellbeing improved significantly after massage. “Improvement in the quality of life experienced by an individual with MS is of great importance and therefore further research is warranted, the study concluded.
Shiatsu practitioner Trish Dent from Halesworth in Suffolk has watched patients regain independence after treatments. She said: “I found working on the legs helped reduce the severity of spasm, enabling one client to manage to go to the toilet for herself, rather than getting her carer to take her.”
Melita O’Byrne is one of four Shiatsu practitioners at the MS Therapy Centre in Bedfordshire. She has been treating MS for 16 years and sees over 20 clients a week. She said: “We are always fully booked. Shiatsu gives pain relief and makes people aware of what is going on in the body. It provides a very safe environment to release their feelings. It can also help mobility and headaches, improve flexibility and lift mood.”
When Alan Taylor, former manager of Sussex MS Treatment Centre, introduced Shiatsu to members in 1998 he monitored the benefits using the NHS approved methods MYMOP. “Without exception we found Shiatsu had benefits for people who tried it. Rigidity and muscle spasm mean lack of mobility so most MS sufferers like the movement they get from Shiatsu treatment.”
“Shiatsu makes people feel more alive,” says George Strino who treats MS patients in four different clinics, including Penrith Community Hospital and Westmorland General Hospital in Cumbria. One project sees nearly 50 MS patients per day.
“It mobilises the body with lots of stretches, which opens things up. This improves posture and helps people walk better. It also works on a more subtle level, releasing tension. It is no cure but it helps people manage their condition,” said George.
Clients are usually advised to come for fortnightly sessions. Treatments cost around £15 within subsidised clinics. Private practitioners charge at least £40 per hour.
There is growing interest in exploring the benefits of touch therapy for MS. In 2016 researchers at Shepherd Centre in the US began a new study examining the efficacy of massage for pain, spasticity and overall quality of life. A team of 10 researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University are currently investigating the benefits of abdominal massage after receiving a £740,000 research grant to investigate the link between MS and bowel dysfunction which affects 60% of MS patients. If the results are positive, this could further boost Shiatsu’s popularity because it has powerful techniques which can soothe bowel problems.