The Bowen Technique

A little note about a lesser known but equally bonkers form of woo.

I saw a little advert today in my local freebie paper about the “Bowen technique”, apparently being able to help with (amongst other things) Asthma and Migraines. Being an inquisitive sort, I did a bit of digging…

names etc removed to protect the innocent quacks

It looks like a bog standard little ad – note the rather insidious “suitable for all ages from newborn.”

The European College of Bowen Studies provides most of the information below.

From the description, Bowen looks like a very low impact massage-like technique.

However, obviously there is more to it than that:

The technique involves the therapist using fingers or thumbs to move over muscle, ligament tendon and fascia in various parts of the body.

A look at the video shows how very low impact this is – it really looks more like the “laying on of hands” than anything else. Of the 5 peer reviewed pubications about BT, only 4 relate to the efficacy of the technique, and those are all arm-wavey non/poorly-controlled subjective pilot studies from which no reliable conclusions can be drawn.

I was particularly interested in the claim that BT can alleviate asthma symptoms – being mildly asthmatic myself, and having a son who suffers (from time-to-time) with severe asthma attacks.

In the risable “research” section of the website, there is a page about Asthma – it contains an article reprinted from the Times which looks more like an advert than a serious peice of journalism. The major woo is centred around the assertion that “The body knows how not to have asthma, so you just need to find ways to help it not to be triggered to have an asthma response.” Okaaaaaaay.

Tacked on the end of the article is what looks like a bit of legal back-covering:

Bowen practitioners do not claim to cure asthma

Well – good – becuase AFAIK, no-one claims to be able to cure asthma. But:

it can be very effective in managing the condition. Many patients, particularly children, report that they found relief with the technique.

O rly? That looks a little dangerous to me. The back-covering addendum also helpfully states that the National Asthma Campaign advises ” patients to consult their GPs beforehand and always to continue to take their medication”. Which is of course completely contrary to the pro-bowen anecdote/article above.

They finish with a flourish:

It is gaining acceptance, not through a scientific understanding, but because some doctors and physiotherapists find it helps patients

…nice… a quick “appeal to ignorance” caveat and a nice little:

The basic idea of drawing the brain’s attention to a problem then allowing the body to heal itself does not fit in with a conventional view of physiology. It’s likely that working with a kindly, interested therapist will make anyone feel better, but it’s harder to explain the reported emergency asthma treatment and frozen shoulder studies in this way.

Basically… NO, it’s placebo innit.

The article is reckless and dangerous. The addendum probably just about saves it from being actionable under ASA guidlines. Cajoling asthma sufferers to leave steroid inhalers at home, and rely on an unproven “emergency move, which involves pushing your thumb into the soft stomach area” really is very irresponsible. If you have asthma, or have witnessed a full-on asthma attack – it’s really quite scary stuff.

In an asthma attack the most important thing is getting medical attention and getting your airways open again – this is done by steroid inhaler or nebuliser or a dose of oral steroids – not by pushing your thumb into your tummy. The lack of prominence of the real medical evidence in this page looks awfully like a crude attempt to down-play the fact that BT does not work for Asthma, but hey “we’ll take your money off you if you fancy someone miming some sort of intervention.”

Avoid at all costs.

8 Responses to The Bowen Technique

  1. zeno001 says:

    Send it to the ASA and you’ll win!

  2. Dave says:

    I sent an e-mail to the publisher of the local freebie rag pointing out that this advert was BS, and suggested that if they didn’t check accuracy of what they were publishing, I’d refer matter to ASA – will see what sort of response I get…

  3. Dave says:

    The Bowen Technique practitioner has asked me to get in touch (via publisher).I sent this:”I have been forwarded your e-mail address by [[NAME REMOVED]], following my concerns regarding the advert in which youseemed to claim that Asthma responds to treatment via the BowenTechnique.I have been unable to find any peer-reviewed publications or clinical trial data that support this claim, and it is this level of evidence that the ASA requires when assessing the accuracy of healthcare claimsin advertisements.Perhaps if you have access to some articles that I have not been ableto find, you would be kind enough to forward them on to me.Kind regards,”

  4. Dave says:

    I got a reply:”Thank you for giving me the chance to tell you something about The Bowen Technique. I have been qualified in this technique for 12 years now and I use it more than any other of the Complementary therapies that I am qualified in, as it has proven to be more efficient and quicker acting than many other techniques. I belong to BTER (Bowen therapists European Register) where you can verify what Bowen is used for. We have a strict code of practise within the register which does not allow us to encourage any person to stop or change their medication. This could only be advised by a medical doctor. As a long term asthma sufferer myself I can understand your concern regarding alternative asthma treatments. I used to take 3 different asthma inhalers on a daily basis until a few years ago. I was able to stop my medication and have not taken any preventers for about 4 years now. Even though I have been able to do this I would never advise a client to do this without their doctor’s approval. If you would like further information regarding asthma and the Bowen technique please go to where you can look at any research we have available. If you use the links button you can find details for Alistair Rattray who has dealt with an enormous amount of asthma suffferers especially children with great success. I hope that this allays your concerns about this technique. Thank you for reading this and please get back in touch with me if there is anything else I can help you with.”The link is broken, as far as I can tell…

  5. Dave says:

    I replied: “Thank you for taking the time to reply to me.Whilst I am appreciative of you sharing your anecdotal evidence withme, I am still unaware of any clinical trials or peer-reviewedpublications which support your assertion that the Bowen Technique iseffective in treating asthma. In fact, I have yet to come across anydata on Bowen technique that suggests that is it effective treatmentof anything at all other than a few uncontrolled pilot studiesconducted to assess it’s efficacy in treating “frozen shoulder”.Whilst I appreciate that you “have a strict code of practise withinthe register which does not allow us to encourage any person to stopor change their medication. This could only be advised by a medicaldoctor” (rightly so) this caveat does not make it acceptable for Bowenpractitioners to claim that BT is effective when there is no evidenceto suggest that it is.As before, if you do have access to trials/data that show that BT isan effective treatment for asthma, please point me in the rightdirection – I am more than happy to be proven wrong.”

  6. Rachel says:

    Just to declare my interest before I go any further: I’m halfway through studying to become a Bowen practitioner and I happened across your article from a Google blog search to try and locate some unbiased anecdotal evidence about the technique.I’ll start with an antagonistic question: from where on the ECBS (or any Bowen-related) website have you inferred that they are “cajoling asthma sufferers to leave steroid inhalers at home”? I can’t find anything remotely to that effect and if you’ve felt the need to fictionalise the content of their website to strengthen your argument then to me that suggests your argument perhaps wasn’t that strong on its own merits.When I underwent training in the Bowen asthma procedure we were taught that in the event of an acute attack the first port of call must *always* be conventional first aid. The “emergency move, which involves pushing your thumb into the soft stomach area” is designed to complement conventional medicine, not replace it. (Complementary medicine – the clue is in the title.) If you’ve ever witnessed a severe asthma attack (I’m assuming you have from what you mentioned about your son at the beginning of the article) then you’ll know that β2 agonists (salbutamol/Ventolin) and/or steroids are not always completely effective – or available; children in particular have a habit of losing their inhalers – and sometimes there’s no alternative but to call 999. In that scenario, any technique which can potentially relieve bronchospasm for even a few seconds to allow the sufferer to empty their lungs for another breath can buy a few more minutes of oxygen while the ambulance arrives.It’s the easiest thing in the world to be critical of something of which you have no closer experience than from the comfort of your sofa. I will take this opportunity to commend you on the creative use of different sizes and styles of font (not to mention the strikethrough and quote tags) but sadly I’m unable to do the same for the depth of your research into the content of the article itself. Yes, there are individuals practicing Bowen technique whose grasp of science leaves something to be desired, and nonsensical quotes like “the body knows how not to have asthma” don’t exactly paint the most credible picture of the therapy, and from that point of view I can see why you would be cynical. However, there are many people who have seen real benefit from Bowen (for asthma as well as numerous other conditions) and I do genuinely believe that, with time and funding, the credible clinical trials will happen.

  7. Dave says:

    Hi Rachel, thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. To start with your “antagonistic” question: from this webpage quotes:”Kick the inhaler into touch” and: “He says: “If I get through to the new year without an attack I might leave my inhaler behind.”is where I got that from. Both quotes are highly suggestive that Bowen can allow an asthma sufferer to leave their inhaler behind.However, to address your more general points. I have had a fruitful e-mail discussion with the Bowen Practitioner mentioned in the comment section. She also says that she was taught the same as you – i.e. Bowen was complimentary to conventional medicines, and steroid inhalers are always the first line of defence against and asthma attack. Which I think we can all agree on.I also note that the Bowen technique has recently become registered with the CNHC. I would hope that under the guidance of the CNHC that _ALL_ Bowen practitioners will be better able to advertise their services without breaching ASA guidelines on advertising unproven therapeutic methods.Anyway, I stick by my original point. Bowen has not been shown to be effective in treating asthma in any clinical trials. Therefore, IIRC, according to ASA guidelines, Bowen practitioners should not be advertising as being able to treat asthma. Regards,David

  8. Rachel says:

    Hi Dave,Thanks for replying to my comment, there are two points I’d like to respond to from it:Whereas I agree that “Kick the inhaler into touch” and “He says: “If I get through to the new year without an attack I might leave my inhaler behind.” are suggestive that Bowen can potentially allow an asthma sufferer to stop carrying their inhaler, I still think to suggest that the article is “cajoling” them into doing so is something of an exaggeration. (It’s also somewhat misleading to talk about the ECBS website in terms of ASA guidelines as marketing messages on companies’ own websites are not under the ASA’s remit.) On a personal note, I haven’t had an asthma attack in more than five years (nothing to do with Bowen, I will say) but I still carry my inhaler with me and can’t imagine a situation in which I would advise someone it was safe not to do so.As for your point about CNHC registration helping Bowen practitioners to advertise their services without breaching ASA guidelines, it would be great if that were the case but I don’t share your optimism, at least as things currently stand. As I said in my initial comment, I *am* hopeful that credible clinical trials are only a matter of time. Unfortunately, until then it’s virtually impossible for a Bowen practitioner to advertise their services at all without falling foul of the ASA’s rules. I must confess, until I did some research after reading your post I wasn’t aware of the standard of evidence required by the ASA and I would have made the same mistake myself. In fact, it’s just as well that the remit of the ASA doesn’t cover company’s own websites otherwise I *would* be in breach as my website offers a list of the ailments that Bowen can be used to treat. No guarantees are made of success, but simply listing puts me on the wrong side of the guidelines.I suppose I would summarise my argument as this: I agree that you have a valid point about the initial magazine article breaching ASA guidelines, but I think to go from that to describing the ECBS article as “reckless and dangerous” and saying that Bowen should be “[avoided] at all costs” is an unfair leap.Regards,Rachel.

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