Friday 28 October 2011

Qigong and the Jedi massage

Please do not take any offence with the title of this post. I merely pass comment that Qigong, the practice of 'aligning breath, movement and awareness to restore balance', looks on paper similar to Qui-Gon (the Star Wars character played by Liam Neeson). Indeed I wouldn't be surprised to learn that George Lucas hadn't invented the character's name on purpose to be so similar given that ever-so skillful martial art-type philosophy and movements the hapless Jedi employed during the Star Wars saga. To any followers of Jediism, may the force be with you.

As you might imagine, some of the tenets of Qigong theory 'clash' with the more contemporary medical model of health and illness. I don't want to go too deeply into the reasons why (peer-reviewed evidence, etc) but it is perhaps as a result of this clash that Qigong and related schools of thought are often looked down on in comparison to the usual body-medicine-health evidence-based model. The word 'woo' tends to be used quite a bit.

Things seem to be changing however. A recent peer-reviewed paper caught my eye with regards to Qigong massage and autism which, I have to say, has slightly altered my opinion of the whole mind-body aspect. I should point out that I was never particularly adverse to the message of such things, particularly given the seemingly-evolving body of published work on 'mindfulness' in relation to psychology. A friend of mine, Chris Mitchell whose blog appears at the foot of this blog, has also written and talked quite a bit about his experience of mindfulness in relation to Asperger syndrome, which has also contributed to my interest in such concepts. Whether the effect is real or due to something else, I don't know, but if it works, it works.

The paper (full-text) by Silva and colleagues* describes results from a randomised-controlled trial (RCT) of Qigong massage delivered by parents to their young children with a diagnosis of autism (n=24) compared with a life-as-usual autism comparison group (n=18). There were a few other points of analysis regarding the use of home and dual programmes but I won't on this occasions travel too far into the wheres and whys because the paper is open-access and I don't have the time to make this a mega-post. Suffice to say, allowing for the relatively small participant groups and the possibility that more focused attention from parents on children might have played a role, the results did suggest some significant effects in the intervention group.

There are a number of potential messages to take home from this and other papers (admittedly from the same author group) suggestive of some effect. First is the role of occupational therapy to conditions like autism. I have previously sung the praises of good occupational therapy on this blog, which I assume is going to be the best discipline to help with such manual practices. Second is that like in other chronic conditions such as CFS, massage therapy and all that goes with it, is not necessarily the same as other complementary therapies. My coming from research which has looked at dietary intervention in relation to autism, I know a little bit about the 'label' of complementary medicine and the often 'negative' connotations that it brings. In this case, I offer no opinion on whether things like mind-body, energy or homeopathic schools of thought work or not for autism or anything else; rather that the patting, shaking and pressing movements of Qigong massage might produce tangible benefits for some children with autism (and probably their parents well-being also). Finally, I think there is a need for more experimental investigations of such hands-on therapies. Massage and autism to many conjures up images of Temple Grandin and her squeeze machine. I do also wonder whether some of the processes of Qigong massage could be incorporated into other early interventions and onwards what the cumulative effects on symptom presentation might be. Research and scientific method are the watch-words.

For now... deep breaths, relax those muscles and try to listen to your body.. your breathing, your heart beating, shutting out everything around you. Take it away** (but perhaps don't drive or operate heavy machinery anytime soon after this).

*Silva LM. et al. Early intervention for autism with a parent-delivered Qigong massage program: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Occup Ther. 2011; 65: 550-559.

** Renata Scotto & Mirella Freni "Canzonetta sull' aria".


  1. I think this is the one my brother does. He is 42 and is either an severe aspie or high functioning autistic. He has been plagued by sleep problems his whole life and does something like this in the evenings to relax (breathing and slow movement type exercise). Whatever it is, he swears by it.

  2. Thanks Mrs. Ed. Chris who is mentioned in this blog has talked extensively about his 'mindfulness' training and how it seems to help him with things like anxiety. Given that anxiety is, in some cases of autism (and lots of other things also), one of the more 'debilitating' day-to-day issues, I go with those who feel that it helps.


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