Back Pain :: Bowen Technique for Pain Relief & Fibromyalgia

About 25 years ago I lifted a very heavy box. Immediately I felt something snap in my lower back. Before I knew what was happening, I crashed to the floor and couldn’t get up. I could hardly move. The pain was terrible.

For the next two weeks I could barely get out of bed. and I could only walk a few steps at a time. It took many weeks for the pain to finally subside. Ever since that day, I’ve suffered from chronic back pain.

Although I experienced some relief using heat, cold, massage, chiropractic and acupuncture, invariably the pain always returned – until in 1999 I visited a friend in California who had had similar back problems. She told me she had some body work called Bowen. Her back and hip pain were gone after the first session! I was definitely intrigued. I couldn’t wait to find out more.

When I arrived back home I got on the internet and discovered that the Bowen Technique wasn’t that well known in the U.S. Hoping to find a practitioner, I emailed close to 40 practitioners around the country and asked if they could refer me to someone nearby. After 39 “no’s” I got one “yes” and arranged to have three Bowen sessions. After the third treatment, my back pain and sciatica were “history!” I was so excited, I decided to train as a Bowen practitioner.

The Bowen Technique was developed in Australia in the 1950’s by Thomas Bowen, a gifted healer. Late in life he discovered he had an unusual gift that allowed him to intuitively know what was ailing people and how to help them relieve their pain. His healing technique is unusual in that it was developed without his having had any previous medical or healthcare training.

Like D. D. Palmer (Chiropractic), Ida Rolf, (Rolfing), Moshe Feldenkrais (Feldenkrais Technique) and Mikao Usui (Reiki), Tom Bowen had a special talent. He claimed he could feel tiny vibrations in people’s muscles that helped him find the exact location to work on. Tom had the capacity to quickly assess what was wrong with someone and where they were out of balance. He could glance into a room full of people for about 20 seconds, and know what each of their problems were.

Although he never advertised, it was estimated that he treated over 13,000 people in the course of one year, and he claimed a success rate of about 88%! He spoke of his skill with great humility and frequently stated that his work was “simply a gift from God.” He dedicated his life to turning his gift into a practical application that has proven to be of great benefit to thousands of people all over the world.

A Bowen Session
A Bowen treatment lasts about 30-45 minutes. The practitioner “rolls” over the muscles with her fingers, which causes the muscles to relax. No oils are used. Treatment can be done through clothing or directly on the skin. The moves are done in groups. Between sets, the practitioner leaves the room for at least two minutes to allow the body to relax.

The moves send out signals which:

* release tension;
* stimulate energy flow;
* facilitate lymphatic drainage of toxins and waste;
* promote good circulation;
* increase mobility;
* encourage the body to relax, realign and heal itself.

Some people feel shifts and changes in their bodies during and after a Bowen session. While many experience immediate pain relief, improvement is just as likely to unfold over the next few days to a week. Two or three treatments are usually enough to achieve long-lasting relief. Even long-term conditions may respond very quickly. The ideal situation is to give the Bowen Technique a try for 3 sessions, once per week, without having any other kind of bodywork in between.

How does it work?
The Bowen Technique affects the body primarily through the nervous and the bioenergetic systems, to bring it into a state of balance.

Autonomic nervous system rebalancing
The autonomic nervous system controls over 80% of bodily functions (cardiac, respiratory, peripheral circulation, reproductive, endocrine, gastrointestinal) and is very susceptible to stress and emotional tensions. For healing to happen, the body needs to shift from sympathetic (fight/ flight mode) to parasympathetic (vegetative mode) dominance. For this to happen, it needs time and space to literally unwind and “digest” physical and emotional stress. The Bowen Technique facilitates these positive shifts.

Stretch Reflex
Most Bowen moves are done either at the origin, insertion or belly of muscles, where the Golgi and Spindle nerve receptors are located. These receptors inform the nervous system of the state of tension, length or stretch in the muscles and tendons and are stimulated during the rolling part of the Bowen therapy movement.

Joint Proprioreceptors
All Bowen moves done around a joint directly affect the joint and ligaments, which are richly innervated with proprioreceptors, those nerves that sense the position of your body.

Lymphatic Circulation
The Bowen Technique stimulates lymphatic circulation and drainage.

Spinal Reflexes
Many of the Bowen moves are performed along the spine over the erector muscles (two thick columns of heavy muscles on either side of the spinal column which run from the base of the pelvis to almost the full length of the spine). These moves appear to produce referred reactions to other areas of the body.

Often people will mention that conditions were addressed, other than the one for which they originally sought consultation, – even though the practitioner didn’t know about them (e.g., improved digestion, elimination circulation or sleep).

The fascia, sheets of connective tissue, connect everything in the body: muscles, bones, internal organs and central nervous system. They play a major role in muscle coordination, flexibility, postural alignment and overall structural and functional integrity. Bowen move free the relationship between the fascia and the nerve, muscle or tendon being addressed.

Acupuncture Points and Meridians
The Bowen Technique stimulates circulation of energy and clears energetic blocks. Coincidentally, several of the moves are located along acupuncture meridians or on specific acupuncture points which are known to stimulate and balance the body’s energy.

What Happens?
A Bowen move consists of mild finger pressure against the side of a muscle or tendon for about three seconds, then a rolling movement over the top of the muscle or tendon, then a release, which allows the muscle or tendon to spring back to its normal position. Bowen moves are often performed in pairs – called “stoppers” that contain the effects of subsequent moves within a limited area.

Then muscles or tendons are moved to create an impulse that rebounds from the stoppers back and forth for about two minutes until the area relaxes completely. This relaxation response is most probably mediated by the golgi tendon apparatus. When the tendon is pressed sideways, then released, the golgi apparatus sends an impulse to the spinal cord that causes a relaxation reflex in the muscle.

Bowen and Fibromyalgia Relief
Research studies of the Bowen Technique indicate that it may be effective in relieving the painful symptoms of fibromyalgia.

In a study of twenty patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia conducted by Jo Anne Whitaker, M.D. (1998), at the American College of Rheumatology, almost all participants experienced various degrees of relief which lasted from a few days to several weeks. Most reported immediate relief following a Bowen treatment. For some, repeated Bowen therapy maintained complete clinical remission. The results were statistically significant and correlated with improvement of clinical well-being. [1]

A pilot study on the effect of Bowen treatments on fibromyalgia sufferers was carried out by Tim Willcocks (Bowen Practitioner and Trainer). Four participants (aged 39-52) who had carried the diagnosis of fibromyalgia from 3 to 5 years, were given four Bowen treatments over a five week period. All four participants experienced improvements in sleep, ease in walking, cessation of vertigo, eased neck pain, improved balance and less exhaustion. [2]

Effects of the Bowen Technique on the
Autonomic Nervous System and Heart Rate Variability
By measuring changes in the intensity and variability in heart rate before and after a Bowen treatment, a study by Jo Anne Whitaker, M.D., demonstrated that fibromyalgia patients with myofascial pain and other clinical symptoms of autonomic nervous system (ANS) dysfunction receiving Bowen therapy experienced mild to marked relief. Significantly, ANS dysfunctional changes before therapy were partially balanced following therapy. [3]

Surprising and unexpected recoveries – anecdotal reports
People with chronic disabilities such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, MS, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and arthritis have shown a gradual improvement in the condition and also in quality of life. It is always worth trying the Bowen Technique because in many cases it has been known to trigger surprising and unexpected recoveries when nothing else has worked.

Exhaustion had become a stable part of “Sheila’s” life, as had the pain. During a visit to a new doctor, a brief mention of the Bowen Technique was made and she was referred to a practitioner. Sheila had no idea what to expect and she was very nervous during her first visit. The therapy was explained in a very reassuring way, even though she didn’t really understand the part about “energy flow” and she found the whole thing a little weird. But she had come this far, so she thought she might as well give it a try.

The treatment itself was very relaxing. In fact, she almost fell asleep several times. Since she was accustomed to a life of conventional drug therapy, Sheila tried to rationalize how Bowen could possibly help, especially after nothing else had worked. The week after her first session she remained skeptical, and so it was to her surprise that within a few days she began to feel different. Her pain was still there, but she felt different – like she could do more. She decided it was probably a coincidence.

Over the next few weeks Sheila began to take regular walks and without even noticing it, she slowly developed less reliance on pain killers. Gradually the time between Bowen treatments grew longer. It is now months since her last treatment and she still doesn’t understand the whole process, but what does that matter? When did she ever understand how conventional medicine worked? All she knows is that without the aid of prescription drugs, she is slowly regaining much of the life she had lost for so long.

Crohns Colitis
Having now had five Bowen sessions, “Donna” no longer takes steroids and other medication prescribed for Crohns Colitis, with which she was diagnosed just over two years ago. The morning following her first treatment, she woke up free of the stomach cramps and other unpleasant symptoms which she had had for several years.
In fact she felt so good, she forgot to take her medication. And for the next four weeks she stopped taking any of her prescription drugs – with no ill effects at all. (*)
The relief and general well being Donna has now are something she had forgotten she could feel. Her life in general has vastly improved thanks to the Bowen Technique.

Neck Injury
“Curtis” suffered a repetitive strain injury (RSI) in his neck at work, which resulted in a very sharp pain in his left shoulder blade. An osteopath unfortunately caused more harm by trapping a nerve in his neck, which affected his left hand and restricted his neck movement. He also had physiotherapy and traction, neither of which helped alleviate the pain.

Curtis decided to try the Bowen Technique on the advice of a friend who had had good results. He found it very relaxing and made an appointment for the following week. It wasn’t until he left and was walking to his car that he realized he was moving freely again. He was able to move around as he did before the accident, and the pain in his neck and shoulders had vanished.

His relief lasted five days and then the stiffness and pain returned, but not as bad as before. After the second Bowen session, he was out of pain again. This time for a bit longer. Gradually, the Bowen treatments had a beneficial and cumulative effect. Now Curtis only gets a session once a month and he’s back to about 95 percent of what he was before his accident.

Mae Shapiro, age 82 reports:
“I’ve suffered from severe arthritis for many years. It was so bad that it was hard to get a good night’s sleep. Every time I moved the pain woke me up. I used a walker to get around to take the pressure off my legs.

When Gerri suggested I try the Bowen Technique, I was skeptical that anything so gentle could do me any good, but I agreed to try it.

After my first session, I got off the bed and walked right into the kitchen… forgetting my walker. I couldn’t believe it! That night I slept through the night for the first time in six years. Amazing!”

Bowen Technique Hailed By Health Professionals
Dr. JoAnne Whitaker, M.D., was facing a hip replacement and back surgery when she discovered the Bowen Technique. After receiving Bowen treatments, not only was she able to walk, but she went back to playing golf, all without surgery. She was so impressed that she flew to Australia to train in the Bowen Technique and now treats patients with ailments ranging from bunions to heart disease.

According to Dr. Whitaker, “Bowen Therapy is the single, most important hands-on healing technique in medicine.”

Brenda Williams, Director of the Quiet Miracles Program in North Carolina, chose the Bowen Technique as the sole hands-on component of her hospital’s pain management unit.

Ted Sleigh, M.D. states that of all the modalities he has used, “Bowen Therapy has helped so many of my patients that I would never want to give it up.”

Audrey Butko, M.D. considers the Bowen Technique to be a blessing in her HMO practice because of its simplicity, positive results and patient satisfaction. It has nearly eliminated her need to use cortisone injections.

Dr. Christine Staub, a family physician with a special interest in the treatment of chronic pain, has seen the Bowen Technique “unlock the door” for patients who had reached an impasse in their pain treatment. “I am thrilled to have Bowen Therapy as a resource for myself, family, friends and patients,” she said.

Gerry Townsend, M.D., offers the Bowen Technique to acute and chronic patients who have not responded to traditional treatment for myofascial pain syndrome, back pain, fibromyalgia, arthritis or fractures. Although skeptical at first, C.S. Whitman, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon, now regularly refers patients to Dr. Townsend’s program.

“As the success with Bowen is in most cases so astonishing, people seeking an explanation as to what it is prior to receiving treatment often think you are some incredible charlatan making wild claims when you give an explanation. But it is true. Clients who present with both acute and chronic pain, having often sought in vain treatment from a variety of other experts and specialists, are consistently free of their problems within a very short time by using Bowen. In fact, most clients require only 2 or 3 sessions to achieve long term benefits.”
Dr. Michael Buckmann
In Summary
The main difference between Bowen and other modalities is how fast it works, how gentle it feels and how long the pain relief lasts. Anyone can learn how to do the Bowen Technique. There is only one basic move. The technique has been successful in treating back pain, sciatica, headaches, migraines, arthritis, fibromyalgia, sports injuries and much more. For me, the miracle lies in the fact that doing so little produces such long-lasting relief.

[* Caution: Please be aware that stopping steroids, hormones, and other medications without consulting your physician could be dangerous. Some medications have to be tapered rather than stopped abruptly if serious negative effects are to be avoided.]

Gerri Shapiro, MS Ed, is an international health educator and Bowen practitioner who has worked with the World Health Organization, Asian Development Bank, USAID and Management Sciences for Health in the areas of alternative and traditional medicine. She is a member of the American Massage Therapy and American Holistic Health Associations. She is the editor of and, Bowen resource and information websites.

? Gerri Shapiro, 2004

For more information:

1. Whitaker, J.A., Marlowe, S. (1998) The Bowen Technique: A healing modality, alleviates myofacial pain of fibromyalgia (FM) and balance the dysfunctional changes of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) as measured by clinical assessment and heart rate variability. MYOPAIN ’98, Silvi Marina, Italy

2. Tim Willcocks. Effect of Bowen Treatment on fibromyalgia sufferers 1997-98.

3. The Bowen Technique: A gentle hands-on healing method that affects the autonomic nervous system as measured by heart rate variability

by Gerri Shapiro, MS Ed., Bowen Practitioner

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