Bowen Therapy – Does It Work?
Can a hands-on technique really help laminitis pain, musculoskeletal problems (mild, severe/acute and chronic) TMJ and digestive issues, as well as reduce anxiety and an inability to focus? Touch Balancing/Animal Bowen™ (TB/AB) is a gentle, hands-on therapy based on the human Bowen Technique developed by the late Thomas Bowen of Geelong, Australia. The technique consists of a series of gentle rolling moves on the skin performed with fingers and thumbs or an open palm, using minimal pressure. The moves are done at specific locations in specific sequences, with brief pauses in between that allow time for the nervous system to respond. Touch Balancing/Animal Bowen is an adaptation of the Bowen Technique for use in animals. It was developed by Carol Bennett of Durango, Colorado in the mid 1990s.
How it was developed
TB/AB came about as a result of a disabling auto accident that left Bennett with chronic neck, back, shoulder and arm pain. Her discomfort was only partially responsive to chiropractic, acupuncture, myofascial release, Western medical interventions and other therapies. A physician friend urged her to attend a Bowen course being given in the United States. The first treatments left Bennett virtually pain-free, and also resolved several structural problems remaining from the accident.
Realizing that this modality would be highly beneficial for animals, Bennett spent the next two years studying human Bowen Technique and becoming a certified practitioner, adapting the moves to animal anatomy with input from several veterinarians, and finally writing a manual. Her work was recognized in 1997 by the Bowen Academy of Australia and was approved as the recognized Bowen for small animals. Since then, TB/AB has been used with success on a wide variety of animal species, large and small, and is being taught across the United States.1
The basic technique consist of sets of small, gentle, precise moves performed using the thumbs, fingers or palms. Each move starts with a preparatory action called “taking slack”, in which a small “reserve” of loose tissue is created.
- This is done by first moving the skin overlying a specific muscle or tendon to the edge of the structure, in the direction opposite to which the move will be performed.
- Gentle pressure is applied and held against the edge of the muscle or structure, so as to stretch and displace it slightly from its normal shape and position. This is called the “challenge” (Figure 1a).
- A slow rolling move is made back over the muscle or structure while maintaining the light pressure. The muscle or tendon springs back to its original shape and position as the thumb or fingers pass over it (Figure 1b). This is a dynamic event, similar to plucking a string on an instrument.
- Finally, a two-minute “hands-off” wait ensues to allow time for the nervous system to respond. Changes in tissue tension, mental/emotional state, and energy/activity are seen to occur during this waiting period.
The most basic sequence of moves is performed along the spine, and is aimed at balancing/releasing tissue tension from the cervical vertebrae to the sacrum and coccyx. During the course of a treatment, some moves may be repeated or augmented with additional procedures to address other areas or organs. The moves are usually done only once or twice over an area, the pauses observed, then the next region addressed.
Physiological basis and theory
There is no clear consensus as to how the Bowen moves work. Anatomically, the various moves are made over sites of acupuncture points and meridians, trigger points, neurolymphatic reflex points, and proprioceptors of the joints. Alpha motor neurons, which directly initiate skeletal muscle contraction, receive both inhibitory input from the Golgi tendon organs and excitatory input from muscle spindle fibers that are activated by the stretching action of the challenge.2 Skin pressure and vibration from the “plucking” effect of the moves also stimulate somatic sensory pathways which convey information to the alpha motor neuron and by various spinal tracts to the thalamus, then the somatosensory cortex, prefrontal cortex, and limbic system. The latter includes areas associated with behavior and emotion, conditioned fear and anxiety, memory, sympathetic inhibition, and the fight or flight response.3
The author proposes a mechanism based on the following observation of George Goodheart, a neuromuscular clinical researcher. When a muscle is neurologically inhibited or weak due to aberrant signaling of the cutaneous receptors, stretching the skin over the weak muscle causes the muscle to become immediately facilitated or temporarily strong again. Vibrating the skin simultaneously with the stretching activates specific receptor types and makes the correction long-lasting or even permanent.4 Both stretch and vibration are elements of the Bowen moves. Since an inhibititory muscle dysfunction usually results in the antagonist muscle(s) becoming hyperfacilitated (staying in a prolonged state of excessive tone), “turning on” or facilitating the inhibited muscle also has the effect of normalizing the antagonist muscle(s) tone and, presumably, alpha motor neuron function as well as the associated cortical and cerebellar pathways involving higher brain centers, leading to autonomic nervous system modulation.
Two particular effects have been observed in human studies that support this concept. The first is that the Bowen Technique can modulate the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems as evaluated by Heart Rate Variability (HRV) studies, and so is able to shift the highly stressed/painful body out of a sympathetic (fight or flight) dominant state into a more parasympathetic (rest and digest) state, which supports healing and more normal function. 5
People undergoing Bowen therapy report a deep sense of overall relaxation following a treatment, which may persist for days to weeks afterwards. Pain – both acute and chronic – will often disappear after even a single move or session. For example, in one pilot study, human subjects with fibromyalgia reported pain relief of up to six weeks following a single Bowen treatment.5 In animals, significant shifts towards calmer behavior are usually observed (Figure 2). Rapid Eye Movement sleep often occurs in small animals during a treatment. The beneficial effects appear to be cumulative, resulting in long-lasting improvement, even when chronic patterns of physical dysfunction have been present.
The second observation is that the technique can balance muscle tension between the left and right sides of the body or across a joint.6 According to a model of neuropathic pain proposed by Dr. C. Chan Gunn, unequal muscle tension along the spine or across joints can produce abnormal pressure distribution which affects the surrounding nerves and tissues, blocking the flow of motor impulses, and sensitizing the nerve and associated skeletal or smooth muscle (Figure 3). This sensitization can further cause sustained muscle shortening or spasms in a self-perpetuating cycle, leading in many cases to chronic pain and eventually osteoarthritis. Restoring symmetry of muscle tension by releasing/relaxing the shortened muscle(s) was found to bring long-term pain relief to many of Dr. Gunn’s patients.7
Veterinary clinical applications
TB/AB is a good first line therapy for any condition in which physical or emotional stress is a factor. In any emergency or acute condition, one or two specific moves can be employed to help reduce shock and pain.
- For chronic musculoskeletal conditions including back pain, sacroiliac pain, or cervical problems, a TB/AB treatment can immediately begin to address compensation patterns of movement or muscle use that may be contributing to overall painfulness, and improve freedom of movement.
- Specific procedures for respiratory and digestive issues can help correct a variety of problems in these systems, and support homeostasis.
- There are even instances of this technique being instrumental in restoring normal blood glucose values in a diabetic animal.
- TB/AB can often address emotional/behavioral issues associated with fear, physical trauma or abuse. Dr. Peck (co-author of this article) has had very good success treating thunderstorm phobia and separation anxiety in dogs using only this technique.
TB/AB is a versatile, wide-ranging and effective therapy that has many uses in equine and small animal veterinary practice. Because it is very non-invasive, most animals will accept treatment with minimum restraint and quickly come to enjoy it. It is particularly valuable for subtle or difficult to diagnose problems, for rehabilitation after injury, and to improve or maintain performance in show or sport horses; but it also can help chronic gastrointestinal, respiratory or behavioral problems.
2Denoix, J-M and Pailloux, J-P. Physical Therapy and Massage for the Horse, pp 7-13. Translated by Jonathon Lewis. Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT, 2001.
3Price, D.D. and Bushnell, M.C. “Overview of Pain Dimensions and Their Psychological Modulation”, Psychological Methods of Pain Control, pp 3-17. IASP Press, Seattle, WA, 2004.
4Walther, David S. “Applied Kinesiology: Synopsis”, 2nd edition, pp. 66-67. Systems DC, Pueblo, CO, 2000.
5Whitaker, J, Gillam P, Seba D. “The Bowen Technique: A Gentle Hands-On Healing Method that Affects the Autonomic Nervous System as Measured by Heart Rate Variability and Clinical Assessment”. Presented at the American Academy of Environmental Medicine Annual Meeting, December 1997, La Jolla, CA.
6Bennett C. A research project on the application of the Bowen Technique on TMJ abnormality was started in Durango, CO by Dr. John Bauman, DDS. Assessments of left and right masseter muscle tension by biofeedback, measurement of bite and subjective symptoms were compared before and after treatment. Immediately after the first treatment, 20 out of 22 patients showed significant reduction in left-right masseter muscle tension differences and approximately one out of three patients felt dramatic relief in some of their symptoms.
7Gunn, C. Chan. “An Introduction to Radiculopathic Pain”, The Gunn Approach to the Treatment of Chronic Pain, 2nd edition, pp. 3-10. Churchill Livingstone, New York.