Squashing People in the Shed
When my son (now 30) was in primary school, he told his teacher that I ‘squashed people’. What is worse, he confided that I did this ‘in the shed’.
To be fair—as a Shiatsu therapist—I do squash people--just a bit—in my therapy cabin.
Although different bodywork modalities use a range of manual techniques from light stroking to percussive slapping or cross-stretching, each with their own applications, some such as Shiatsu predominantly apply a stationary pressure.
Palming, for example, compresses the flesh with a relaxed palm. Thumbing allows stationary pressure to be applied to a more localized region and elbows may be used to access deeper regions.
Palming: static compression
‘Wow, that pressure feels REALLY deep… but, weirdly, doesn’t hurt…feels like it needs doing!’
How can stationary compression possibly bring about a therapeutic response?
One of the key ways bodywork works is by putting new information into a system which is constantly assessing its own status [see Blog Feb 2018]. The content of informational adjustment is a matter of practitioner skill, knowing where and how to apply pressure [techniques are not described here]. A skilled practitioner is admitted into the flesh, mindfully senses the response and adjusts accordingly.
Physiotherapists and massage therapists find that compression calms the client, reduces inflammation and increases localised blood flow. Shiatsu practitioners additionally use static compression to influence meridians and specific acupoints. But putting the practitioner’s role—and their conceptual models—to one side (for now) we can consider what science has to say about the effects of compression on body tissues.
To understand how pressing flesh can possibly be therapeutic, we need to appreciate the dynamic nature of our body.
The body is constantly adjusting itself to attain balance or homeostasis in a world which is constantly changing; inside and outside. Maintaining balance is therefore incredibly complex. Using an oversimplified simple example: if I press here on this muscle, information about the state of postural contraction informs the body-brain to adjust a different muscle there. All we need to know for now is that pressure is important information for managing balance.
Add to this that our tissues are constantly breaking down and rebuilding--remodelling—in an attempt to optimize the relationship between structure and function. Connective tissue, the most prevalent tissue in our body (connecting everything to everything) is continuously remodelling itself depending on how it is used. Research shows that it is mechanical forces which influence proteins inside cells, the extra-cellular matrix around them, and the signalling between these cells. If you play golf long enough (without counter exercises), the lines of connective tissue being over-used will thicken to the point of developing a lop-sided body. Just as the professional archers of past armies can be identified by thicker bones on the shoulder that held the tensile pull of their bow. Pressure is important information for tissue composition.
Biological tissues (e.g., muscle, tendon, bone, fascia and DNA) are piezoelectric meaning that they convert mechanical pressure to electricity (and vice versa). This is one way the brain knows what the body is doing; via the electrical patterns of compression. It is the process of mechanical distortion converting into electrical signals that enables the vascular (blood) system and enteric (gut) system to be co-ordinated. If we could hear piezoelectric activity, there would be a crackling cacophony as we move. Pressure is essential information for system-wide organisation.
Pressure is even useful information inside cells. Mechanotransduction converts ‘squashing’ into electricity and this mechanically-activated current is then carried by ‘piezo’ proteins through the cell to influence piezo ion-channels in the cell membrane controlling which molecules can pass in or out of the cell.
It is not chemistry which produces physiology but electro-chemistry. Everything that happens while we are alive is electro-chemistry, and it is highly responsive to pressure.
Although all our cells (e.g. liver, kidney and bone cells) share the same DNA different genes are switched on to produce their specialized structure and function. Scientists recently discovered that, when it comes to controlling cells, mechanical signalling is as important as chemical signalling. Squashing a cell switches some genes on but not others.
Compression, then, not only influences biochemistry inside and between cells but also the identity of those cells.
During bodywork we are often applying pressure for less than a second but, even so, tissue responses are felt. Rapid changes are considered possible due to the tangled integration of our organisational systems. Imagine our slow hormonal system and faster nervous system intertwined with the immune system, fluid dynamics and electro-chemistry and you begin to envisage a kind of wet jungle.
“This jungle is a self-regulatory field with an amazing amount of complexity, continual reorganisation and plasticity, even in adults.” Professor Robert Schleip (2003)
Scientists are starting to discover why stationary compression can be therapeutic via its ability to influence auto-regulation at all scales from posture to inside cells, and at differing speeds from rapid response to longer-term. Unlike scientists, though, bodyworkers have accrued generations of experience concerning the influences of specific locations on the body. Particularly conductive localities are identified with broad effects on physical, emotional and mental conditions. At present, scientific understanding of this topic is insufficiently developed to comment on sophisticated applications of compression to human tissue but it does at least confirm one thing--that living bodies can be profoundly affected by a bout of skillful squashing in the shed.
Chan, MWC, Hinz, B, McCulloch, CA (2010) Mechanical Induction of gene expression in connective tissue cells, In: Methods in Cell Biology, vol 98, pp 178-205.
Jason, Wu, Lewis, AH, Grandi ,J (2016). Touch, tension and transduction—the function and regulation of piezo ion channels. Trends in Biochemical Sciences.
Kuma, A, Nune, KC, and Misra, RDK. (2016) Electric field-mediated growth of osteoblasts—the significant impact of dynamic flow of medium. Biomaterials Science (1).
Leipzig, Nic D. ; Athanasiou, Kyriacos A. (2008). Static Compression of Single Chondrocytes Catabolically Modifies Single-Cell Gene Expression. Biophysical Journal, 2008, Vol.94(6), pp.2412-2422.
Mechanical force triggers gene expression by stretching chromatin, Science Daily, August 26, 2016.
Sheena E. B. Tyler (2017). Nature's Electric Potential: A Systematic Review of the Role of Bioelectricity in Wound Healing and Regenerative Processes in Animals, Humans, and Plants. Frontiers in Physiology, 01 September 2017, Vol.8.
Shleip, R (2003) Fascial Plasticity—a new neurobiological explanation. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 7(1) pp 11-19.