A reader recently asked me to look into a manipulative technique marketed for both humans and veterinary patients, Bowen Technique. This turned out to be a bit easier than I expected as there are already a couple of excellent evidence-based reviews of the approach available. My own searches of PubMed, the Cochrane Reviews, and other literature resources did not turn up anything not already covered in these reviews, so I will primarily refer to their assessments.
A Canna’ Change the Laws of Physics
Bowen Therapy and the ASA
What Is It
Apparently, Bowen therapy is the invention of yet another self-taught misunderstood genius, this time in Australia. Tom Bowen invented a technique whereby the therapist gently massages certain key points, which may or may not be associated with acupuncture points (which are themselves likely imaginary), meridians, chakras, and other such mystical energy medicine concepts. This supposedly alerts the brain to the presence of a problem which it somehow did not otherwise know about (despite the pain or other symptoms which brought the patient to the therapist), and the brain then repairs the damage on its own. Apparently, the brain is shy because it is supposedly necessary for the practitioner to leave the room periodically during treatment so the brain has the opportunity to respond to the messages they are sending it.
The review at Second Sight goes into more detail, evaluating the theoretical explanations on the Bowen web site, but the bottom line is that these explanations are vitalistic and pseudoscientific, along the lines of those for other similar energy therapies such as traditional acupuncture, Reiki, healing touch, and so on.
Does It Work?
From the point of view of plausibility, there is no reason to think this therapy is effective. The theoretical explanations for it are inconsistent with established science. And as usual, for the veterinary applications of Bowen Technique, I have not found a single published study of any kind. Unless one exists that I am unaware of, the use of this technique in animals is based solely on anecdotal experience, which is deeply unreliable.
There have been a handful of clinical trials in humans, which the blogs cited above review in detail. My own reading of them agrees with these reviews. Almost all are uncontrolled studies highly subject to bias. If you apply a treatment to a bunch of people and something changes about their health, you can’t simply assume the treatment is the reason. So most of these are useless for establishing safety or efficacy.
There is one controlled trial which evaluate the use of Bowen therapy on healthy volunteers by measuring their hamstring flexibility before and after treatment. The study does show that healthy people will stretch farther after they think they’ve received a treatment to enhance flexibility compared to people who haven’t been given any treatment. This doesn’t really say anything at all about whether Bowen technique has any physiological effects or any benefits in treating disease.
Is It Safe
There is no evidence concerning safety for this method. Some practitioners subscribe to the “healing crisis” notion also found in homeopathy, where patients are expected to get worse as a sign they are responding to treatment, so some negative symptoms have been reported anecdotally after treatment. However, without controls or systematic monitoring, there is no way to know if these experiences have anything to do with the treatment. Of course, with Bowen therapy as with most unproven and implausible approaches, the risk that comes with applying an ineffective therapy and failing to seek real medical care in a timely fashion must be considered.
There is no good reason to think this approach works based on the theoretical explanations offered for it, which are unproven and mostly pseudoscientific or vitalistic. There is no evidence for or against it in veterinary species, apart from unreliable anecdotes. There is no controlled clinical research in humans showing a benefit, though uncontrolled trials with high risk of bias appear to show some effects. And there is no evidence concerning the safety of the practice. A classic case of a therapy made up out of thin air by a lone “visionary,” the claims for which must be taken entirely on faith.