Researchers at the University of Alberta are exploring the traditional Japanese massage practice called shiatsu as a potential treatment to help those with chronic pain fall asleep and stay asleep. A small pilot study followed nine people living with chronic pain as they self-administered shiatsu pressure techniques on their hands at bedtime.

“We know that sleep involves both physiology and learning. You don’t just flip a switch and go to sleep,” says Cary Brown, an associate professor of occupational therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “What we saw with this pilot is that it appears self-shiatsu may help your body to prepare for sleep and help you stay asleep for longer periods.”

For the study, occupational therapy and physical therapy students were taught the basic shiatsu techniques and in turn trained participants, who reported falling asleep faster — sometimes even while administering treatment — and slept longer after two weeks and eight weeks of treatment, compared with a baseline measurement.