Bowen: simplicity in movement

Frontline: The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy
October 4 2000, Volume 6, No 19

Bowen: simplicity in movement
By Karen Hodgson

​The Bowen technique is a recent import from Australia. Karen Hodgson profiles the complementary therapy and talks to physios who practise it.

​Perhaps one of the biggest shifts in medicine during the past decade has been the growing interest in, and acceptance of, complementary therapies. Disenchanted with the narrow, empirical approach of traditional medicine, which focuses primarily on the disease or condition being treated, patients and healthcare practitioners alike are turning to more holistic methods.

​’Physiotherapists are particularly receptive to these alternative therapies,’ says Louise Atwill, a director at the European College of Bowen Studies, in Frome, Somerset.

“Many already [draw on] reflexology, kinesiology, acupuncture and a range of alternative therapies, so it is not surprising to find a high proportion of physiotherapists attending our courses in the Bowen technique” she adds.

​The Bowen technique is a recent arrival on the UK’s complementary medicine scene. Developed in the 1930s by Australian cement plant worker, Tom Bowen, it uses small rolling-type movements to release energy in the muscle and connective tissue.

​Although many health problems can be treated using the Bowen method, ranging from minor ailments, such as headaches, to cancer, Louise cites frozen shoulder, repetitive strain injury (RSI), asthma, back and neck pain, and irritable bowel syndrome as the most responsive.

​The technique is well established in Australia, where it is taught to final-year osteopathy students and is fast becoming so in the UK. Since its introduction into this country in 1993, it has attracted a great deal of interest and there are already around 300 registered practitioners.

​It has proved particularly popular, says Louise, among health professionals, including physiotherapists, osteopaths, and chiropractors: On a course of, say, 14 trainees, at least 12 will be health professionals, and interest is growing. Our courses, which are held across the country, are fully booked and we have had to put on extra courses because the demand is so high.’

​Louise attributes Bowen’s popularity to the simplicity of the technique. It does not, she points out, require any equipment, nor is there any strenuous exertion on the part of the practitioner. ‘There is minimal hands-on work.

​Movement is stripped down to the core requirements and the bulk of the healing is left to the patient’s own body.

​’A unique feature of Bowen is that, after each small set of moves, the practitioner leaves the patient to rest for 10 minutes, and can use this time to attend to other patients. When he or she becomes proficient in the technique, it may be possible to treat two patients simultaneously,’ she says.

Lianne Simmons, a second-year physiotherapy student at Oxford Brookes University is an accredited Bowen practitioner and a keen advocate of this new therapy: ‘I was introduced to the technique by a fellow physiotherapist, who had trained in it.

​At the time I was not sure that I would be accepted on to the physiotherapist course – being a mature student – so I decided to try another type of therapy first, and was amazed at the results. ‘For years I had a recurring back problem, and although I tried both physiotherapy and chiropractic, neither proved effective.

​During one of the training sessions at the European College of Bowen Studies, the instructor demonstrated the technique on me and I couldn’t believe the improvement it made.’

Lianne’s dramatic recovery spurred her on, and she now practices the technique at the weekends and during the university holidays.

​’Most of my clients are referred to me by dentists for temporomandibular joint problems, or by osteopaths for neck and back pain, but I also treat people with migraine, insomnia and fluid retention.

It is particularly effective in treating carpal tunnel syndrome, and a number of my clients have cancelled operations for this condition after just a couple of sessions.’

​It is too early in Lianne’s career to combine physiotherapy with adjunctive therapies, but she hopes that this will be possible in the future. ‘Bowen would be another aspect of my work, another string to my bow in the same way that some physiotherapists offer acupuncture,’ she explains.

Annie Stewart, a private physiotherapist working in Bristol, has successfully combined Bowen’s technique with physiotherapy for almost six years. ‘I also practise reflexology and aromatherapy but have achieved the best results with Bowen,’ she says.

​Although Bowen does not work for all patients, Annie estimates that it has an 80 per cent success rate. ‘It is most effective in dealing with acute, rather than chronic conditions, and sometimes, after assessing patients, I recommend that they first try other therapies, such as ultrasound, which I don’t feel is appropriate to use alongside Bowen,’ she explains.

​On the whole, however, Annie believes the technique is an effective adjunct to physiotherapy, particularly where the patient is undergoing exercise programmes.

​’Nearly all my patients gain some benefit from Bowen, even if they don’t obtain a cure,’ she points out.

Annie found it particularly useful when working in mental health because she had more time to spend with the patient; ‘It is a very gentle, non-invasive, calming procedure that helps to balance the patient both mentally and physically. It can be carried out through light clothing so the patient does not feel uncomfortable, and is suitable for people of all ages from babies to the elderly.

​’Health professionals sometimes forget that the body is equipped to heal itself, and technique such as Bowen, help to crank-start that mechanism. It is encouraging that we are now moving away from a drug-dependent medical culture to one that recognises the importance of treating the whole person,’ she adds.

For further information contact:
European College of Bowen Studies,
38 Portway, FROME, Somerset BA11 1QU Tel/Fax: 01373 461 873

Frontline: The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, October 4 2000, Volume 6, No 19
By Karen Hodgson