Bowen therapy

Bowen therapy, or the Bowen technique, is a non-invasive, complementary therapy. It targets certain points on the body with gentle rolling movements to help it balance, repair and reset itself.

Developed in the 1950s by Tom Bowen, this therapy is reported to help with a number of conditions and can address symptoms of stress and anxiety. It is important to note that Bowen therapy focuses on the whole person, not just the condition. The Bowen therapist will know a number of movements that affect certain areas of the body.

On this page we will find out how the Bowen technique works, what to expect in a session and what training a Bowen therapist should have.

How does Bowen therapy work?

As humans, we have the ability to develop responses to stimuli extremely quickly. For instance, if we find ourselves in danger we quickly determine how to respond to it. The same goes for all other situations. A Bowen therapist will use pressure that is appropriate for the individual so the movements do not provoke the body's natural defence system. Therefore Bowen therapy gives our bodies a much-needed break, during which they are able to reset.

There are many theories behind how Bowen treatment actually works. Many questions are raised on how it helps to prompt muscles and tissue in the body to repair and heal. Although research is still ongoing, many theories conclude that it has something to do with how the brain reacts to neural stimulus.

The brain emits around 600,000 signals per second. These send out signals and in turn receive information from the body. For example, a muscular movement begins from the front part of the brain and is sent via signals through the spinal cord, to the arm or leg where it transforms into movement. In order to send this muscle movement signal, however, the brain must first receive a signal telling it what is happening and why this muscle must be moved. This sending and receiving of information operate in a loop circuit, with signals travelling at fast speed.

Bowen therapy fits into this theory because of how the rolling movements - and the regular intervals between each sequence - interfere with signals to the brain. This creates another set of variables for the brain to examine. Once the brain begins to reorder the signals it is also able to receive and interpret information coming from other areas of the body. This explains why Bowen therapy is able to treat ailments that a patient may not have been aware of. By interfering with the brain's controlled loop circuit of signals, Bowen therapy helps the brain to pinpoint other areas in the body that may need healing and repairing.

The guiding principles established by Tom Bowen

What is bowen therapy?

The movements

The movements used in Bowen therapy are very distinctive and are used on precise points on the body. It involves moving the soft tissue in a particular way. It’s a rolling type movement using the fingers, hands and/or elbow, depending on the area being worked on. It creates a focus for the brain by stimulating the nerve pathways and tissue. The movement uses the slack of the skin to move the tissue underneath. Each movement will only cover a small area, depending on how far your skin can move. Typically, it’s no more than two to four centimetres.

Stoppers

Tom Bowen found that he could utilise certain parts of the body as reference points for other procedures or movements. For example, the entirety of the spine can be seen as a shock absorber for the body. So some parts of the spine will become stressed - typically the convex and concave of the spine’s curve. Tom Bowen named the movements in these areas blockers or stoppers. Even though they don’t really block nor stop, they do give an area to focus on when treating, so the given name isn’t too inaccurate.

Breaks

Tom Bowen was a very observational person. He could see when parts of the body were subtly imbalanced, so he could then begin treatment quickly. Once he started what now has been dubbed Bowen therapy, he would leave the room for a few minutes before returning to check how the patient’s body responded. This would determine if anything else needed to be done.

The principle of resting the body for a couple of minutes is vital as it starts the process of repair. The length of time between procedures will differ from client to client. The breaks, however, can be hard to master as they are one of the most difficult concepts to learn as a Bowen therapist. Even though breaks are one of the least understood principles of the therapy, they are considered the most important as it’s the time when the repairing starts.

Avoid other alternative treatments

One of the key principles of the therapy is that it’s the individual’s body that’s doing the work, not the therapist. So for this to take place, the body needs time to recuperate. This principle isn’t stating that other therapies are any less effective than Bowen; it simply needs time for the effects to process. If you treat each therapy as a specific radio signal, you would be asking a single radio to pick up two stations at once. There would be a lot of interference.

What does a Bowen therapist do?

The first step to take when considering Bowen treatment would be to book an initial consultation. This will give the therapist an opportunity to find out about your medical history and what problems you would like to get treated for. This will then enable them to assess your situation and form a personalised treatment plan.

In terms of what to wear, Bowen can be applied to both bare skin and through loose and light clothing. If either yourself or your therapist has specific requirements, it can be discussed in the initial consultation.

Before you start, your therapist may ask you to drink water due to the technique requiring fully hydrated cells and tissues.

During the session, you will usually lie on a therapy bed or table. The therapist will apply subtle, relaxing rolling moves across particular muscle groups, tendons and ligaments. A feature of Bowen is that between sets of movements the therapist will leave the room or quietly sit down and allow you to rest. The interval allows the body to make a decision about what action needs to be taken in response to the given moves.

Once treatment is complete you will usually be asked to drink more water before being advised of possible physical and emotional changes you may experience.

Follow-up consultations will include a progress review and possible reassessment if you need further or more advanced treatment.

The experience was very relaxing and I fell into a dream-like state during the session. I felt an immediate effects for some of my symptoms, which I thought was really impressive.

Over the week, I continued to feel the benefits.

- Read Rhiannon's experience of Bowen therapy.

How many sessions will I need?

Session length will differ depending on individual circumstances, but typically you can expect a session to last between 45 minutes to an hour.

In order to get the most out of your sessions, your therapist may recommend having two or three consecutive sessions every other week. This will give you a chance to gain a true perspective on how you respond to the therapy. If you want to continue after that, it’s considered normal to have sessions spaced even further apart.

In some cases, people have reported side effects to Bowen treatment. These include flu-like symptoms, headaches, stiffness and tiredness. Holistic health practitioners have long recognised a process which they refer to as the 'healing crisis'. Tom Bowen described this process as the body 'resetting itself'. While the body is working to eliminate stress and toxins, the Bowen technique is addressing the root issues. In some cases, these issues rise to the surface in the form of a 'healing crisis', reminding us that there is unfinished business.

Even if you experience a reaction, it’s important to persevere with the treatment. Discuss any side effects with your therapist. They will then be able to provide you with appropriate advice such as exercising, drinking water or other tips to help you with your symptoms.

Although everyone will respond differently to treatment, on average most people experience improvement after three to four sessions. There will be exceptions when you may need to extend the number of sessions you have. This could be the case if you have a longstanding condition. In either case, however, it’s recommended that you continue to see your Bowen therapist every few months even after experiencing positive results to maintain good health.

How can it help me?

There are a number of conditions in which the Bowen technique is said to be helpful. These include back pain, neck pain and shoulder pain. People may also seek treatment for respiratory conditions and headaches. Even injured athletes find the method helpful as remedial therapy during recovery. It is also worth noting that due to the therapy's nature, the Bowen technique can be useful for people of all ages.

Here are a number of conditions that the therapy is said to help:

  • allergies
  • back issues
  • bed wetting
  • bladder problems
  • digestive issues
  • fatigue 
  • foot problems
  • frozen shoulder
  • headaches (including migraines)
  • knee and hip problems
  • menstrual problems
  • mobility issues
  • repetitive strain injury (RSI)
  • respiratory issues
  • sports injuries
  • stress

Although it is best known for resolving back conditions, it can be used for any muscular skeletal problem as the therapy treats the whole body as well as concentrating on certain areas.

- Catherine Wells writes about Bowen therapy for back pain.

What training and qualifications should therapists have?

Though Bowen therapists in the UK are not regulated by law, it is still reassuring to know that your practitioner is working to certain levels of good practice. This is why there are a number of professional bodies and societies which Bowen therapists can choose to register with. In order to join a professional association, individuals will usually have to provide proof of competency in the field as well as agreeing to comply with any code of ethics and complaints procedures.

Bowen practitioners listed on Therapy Directory have shown evidence of training and insurance, or are members of a professional body. You can find out more about this on our Proof Policy page.

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