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The Bowen Technique for Pain Relief

by Gerri Shapiro(more info)

listed in bowen technique, originally published in issue 106 - December 2004

My Story

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 excruciating.

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've experienced some relief using heat, ice, massage, chiropractic and acupuncture, invariably the pain always returned – until I visited a friend in California who had had similar back problems. She told me she had some bodywork 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 home in Hawaii I got on the internet and discovered that the Bowen Technique wasn't that well known in the US. Hoping to find a practitioner, I emailed close to 40 practitioners around the country and asked if they could refer me to someone in Maui. After 39 'nos' 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 1950s 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 DD 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 was.

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 per cent! 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 three sessions, once per week, without having any other kind of bodywork in between.

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.

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 per cent of bodily functions. For healing to happen, the body needs to shift from sympathetic parasympathetic dominance, which encourages the body to let go of 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 are stimulated during the rolling part of the Bowen move.

Joint Proprioreceptors

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

Lymphatic Circulation

The Bowen Technique stimulates lymphatic circulation and drainage.

Spinal Reflexes

Many Bowen moves are performed along the spine over the erector muscles. 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.

(One of my clients came to me suffering from severe back pain. When she stood up after her session she exclaimed "My knee pain is completely gone!" She had never mentioned her knee pain before the session!)


The fascia plays a major role in muscle coordination, flexibility, postural alignment and overall structural and functional integrity. Bowen moves free the relationship between the fascia and the muscle being addressed.

Acupuncture Points and Meridians

Bowen moves stimulate circulation of energy which helps to clear energy 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.

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 MD (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 three to five 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, MD 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

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.

Case Histories


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 sceptical, 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.

Heel Spurs

'Henry's' major concern was the debilitating pain he experienced every day. His job called for him to be on his feet all day. By the middle of the afternoon, he could barely stand. He had tolerated this pain for the last two years. Doctors diagnosed it as heel spurs. He had tried various orthotic shoes, to no avail. They told him there was nothing they could do and that he would just have to live with it. He was desperate when he decided to try the Bowen Technique as a last resort.

After his first session he felt an improvement in his lower back. It was still stiff and achy, but it felt improved. His knees also felt better, but he still had headaches and severe foot pain.

After the second session the pain in his feet was gone. He was able to work all day and then go home and walk around the house with no shoes, something that had not been possible for the past two years.

After the third session, his back pain, headaches and knee pain were gone. He still felt some minor foot aches at the end of the day, but with short rests, they quickly went away.

TMJ, Migraines and Back Spasms

'Jennifer' was told she had to 'learn to cope'. Cope with daily souvenirs of her auto accident: TMJ, migraine headaches and back spasms. Along with massive amounts of painkillers she also had heat packs, ultra-sound massage and cold packs three times a week for 18 months.

She had to restrict her life to accommodate her limitations. A soft diet not to tax the TMJ. No heavy lifting or severe bending. New pains appeared in her right hip. She would never be the same.

A dear friend could not bear watching her suffer and suggested she try Bowen therapy. She had never heard of Bowen, but her mind was open and curious. During the first three weeks she was treated with Bowen, she couldn't lie on her stomach because her sinuses clogged up. Then at week four she noticed she was lying on her stomach with no pain in her shoulders, no discomfort and – strangest of all – she was breathing clearly.

She had more strength, more energy and much more flexibility whether on the treadmill, walking the dog or climbing up stairs. No back spasms. No low-back aches or throbs. She could even bend over and touch her toes. And she hadn't had a migraine for a long time. No earaches either, because the TMJ was better. After eight weeks of Bowen therapy, she was coping very well: getting out of bed without a stiff aching low back, bending, lifting and moving around. Slowly she learned to live once again without earaches, without migraines and without daily jaw pain.

That's called having a normal life.

Bowen Technique Hailed by Health Professionals

Dr JoAnne Whitaker, MD 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.

Audrey Butko, MD considers the Bowen Technique to be a blessing in her medical 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, MD 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.

Dr Michael Buckman has said: "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 two or three sessions to achieve long-term benefits."

Ordinary Miracles

According to Patrik Rousselot, Bowen Instructor, "New practitioners frequently obtain outstanding results even before having completed their training. I recently taught a level 3 refresher where a level 2 student practitioner was able in one session to totally alleviate a woman who had been suffering chronically for 20 years from acute lower back pain due to herniated disks.

"This woman had tried many different forms of therapy and had seen various kinds of practitioners for years. They all came to the conclusion that she had to live with it. Some days her pain was so bad that she couldn't get out of bed, walk or dress herself unassisted.

"I personally met this woman months later, and she was still totally symptom free!!! That one session changed her life.

"All this to say that as a patient… if no experienced long time practitioners are available in your area, it is still worth trying a new practitioner, even a student practitioner, still in training … as the Bowen Technique can often achieve what some of us refer to as 'ordinary miracles'."


The main difference between Bowen and other modalities is how fast it works, how gentle it feels and how long the pain relief lasts. For me, the 'miracle' lies in the fact that doing so little can produce such profound and long-lasting results.


1. Whitaker, JA, Marlowe, S. 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. In MYOPAIN. Silvi Marina, Italy. 1998.
2. Tim Willcocks. Effect of Bowen Treatment on fibromyalgia sufferers. 1997-98.
3. Whitaker, JA. The Bowen Technique: A gentle hands-on healing method that affects the autonomic nervous system as measured by heart rate variability.


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About Gerri Shapiro

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 and lives in Maui, Hawaii. She can be contacted on or

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