nerve receptors

is my bowen treatment actually doing anything ?

Clients often comment that Bowen moves are so gentle, that they wonder whether I am really doing anything.  I assure them I am, and that there’s actually lots going on under the skin during a treatment, thanks to fascia and nerve receptors.

Some clients feel lots of sensations going on in their body during treatment.  And often not where the moves were done.  Others don’t notice the sensations, or think that the odd twitch or warmth they feel is not related to the Bowen move.

While Bowen moves appear to be made directly on muscles, the fascia surrounding the muscles is also impacted.  Fascia is the fine connective tissue that surrounds muscles and organs to create a network throughout the body (and is worthy of it’s own blog post later).

Fascia is not the inert stuff it was once thought to be.  It contains many types of sensory nerves.  These nerves communicate with the brain, letting it know what the body is feeling, and prompting the brain to tell the body to take action.  That action may be to tell muscles to move a hand away from something hot.  Or the action may not involve fast movement, but to allow muscles to relax in response.

nerve receptors brain action

touching the skin

Bowen moves involve first placing hands on the body to move the skin lightly.

Even this simple action starts to activate nerve receptors in the upper layers of the skin.

  • Meissner’s corpuscles are very sensitive to light touch.  These are the nerves that detect things lightly brushing against the skin, including clothes.
  • Merkel’s discs respond to sustained light touch, and relay information to the brain about pressure and texture.
  • Free nerve endings in the skin sense many things, including temperature, mechanical stimulus (touch, pressure, stretch) and pain.

Before a Bowen move is even done, nerve receptors and the brain are already communicating.

nerve receptors skin touch


Most Bowen moves are slow, gentle rolling moves.  Skin is gently moved to take up slack, to allow enough available skin to make a move.  A challenge is applied, or a gentle push into the edge of the muscle. Then a slow steady rolling move is done.

During these actions, a number of other nerve receptors start firing.


Ruffini nerve endings

Ruffini nerve endings are located in the dermis layer of the skin, and in many deeper tissues such as ligaments and joint capsules.  These receptors are responsible for the sensation of stretch on skin, sustained pressure on skin, and the perception of heat.

These nerve receptors only respond to steady gentle pressure – they don’t respond to fast movement. They respond especially well to a sideways stretch across the direction of muscle fibres.  So moves that involve slow melting pressure and roll across muscles, such as the Bowen moves along the spine, stimulates Ruffini receptors.

Stimulation of Ruffini nerve receptors is believed to result in reduced sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous system activity, helping move toward parasympathetic.  Many of us see how these slow gentle moves help not only the local muscles/tissues where moves were done, but the whole body move into a deeply relaxing state.  I see many clients doze off during treatment.

Tom Bowen used to say of the first few slow moves by the lumbar spine that “the body knows that the emergency is over”.

nerve receptors ruffini

Interstitial receptors

Interstitial receptors are types of free nerve endings found nearly everywhere in the body.  The majority of the body’s nerves consisting of these receptors.  They can act as both mechanoreceptors (sensing touch) and pain receptors.

There are two main types of interstitial receptors of interest.

  • “High threshold” (type IV) nociceptors are known to be involved in pain and chronic conditions.
  • “Low threshold” (type III) receptors are extremely sensitive and responds to very light touch.

In clients that have inflammation or chronic pain, it is thought that these Type IV nociceptors may have become hyper-sensitised.  This leads to strong, chronic nerve receptor firing, resulting in continuous activation of the sympathetic nervous system and pain.  This type of mechanism can be seen in conditions involving “-itis” (inflammation) or “-osis” (tissue damage), as well as conditions such as fibromyalgia.  Very gentle work on these nerve receptors is best, to help nociceptors re-normalise, and helping reduce sensation of pain.

Stimulation of the interstitial nerve receptors helps provides Bowen’s deep relaxing effect through decrease in the sympathetic nervous system.  Heart rate and respiration are also impacted by these nerve receptors, contributing to clients often feeling sleepy.

Interstitial nerve receptors can also impact blood pressure, helping regulate blood supply according to local demands.  Stimulation of type IV receptors tends to increase blood pressure, while type III receptors can both increase and decrease blood pressure.  Clients may feel clammy or cold, or much warmer, with some noting a change in blood supply to extremities during or after treatment.


nerve receptors golgi

Golgi receptors

Golgi receptors (or golgi tendon organs) sense changes in muscle tension.  These receptors are found in all dense connective tissue – think where muscles attach to bone via tendons, ligaments and joint capsules.

Being located inside muscle attachments, stimulation of golgi receptors and working them can therefore have a profound effect on posture.  The location in tough tendons means that they take longer to respond in comparison to those nearer the skin’s surface.

Bowen moves that influence golgi receptors are those done over tendons close to bone.  They are cross-fibre, close to the origin/insertion of muscles, and often feel firm or “twangy”.  These include those moves over the origin of hamstrings, over adductors when balancing the pelvis, or the ligaments beside the coccyx.  The moves also tend to use more pressure, feel much firmer.  Longer breaks are often left after such moves impacting these receptors, due to their slower response time.

There are also Golgi receptors in the plantar fascia of the feet, so getting off the table with both feet landing at the same time also adds to stimulating a Golgi response.  Try getting out of bed this way every morning – stimulate those Golgi nerve receptors and help your posture !


nerve receptors pacini

Pacini receptors

Pacini receptors are found deeper in the skin and close to bony attachment sites, so require deeper pressure.  They respond best when moves involve a fast release of pressure, high velocity manipulations or rhythmic motions.  These receptors tend to be stimulated more in therapies like chiropractic and osteopathy, rather than in Bowen Therapy.

Pacini receptors provide an important role in proprioceptive feedback.  This helps coordinate movement and helps with stability.

Some moves in Bowen do have an impact on Pacini receptors.  Bowen moves around the knees in particular impact Pacini receptors, helping regain stability and balance.


You’re feeling relaxed but your nerve receptors are active

Those moves we start with on your back, pushing very gently against and over the muscles of the spine, get those Ruffini nerve endings firing.  The interstitial nerve endings also enjoy the very gentle moves.

With these nerve receptors prompting the parasympathetic nervous system, this is when you may start to doze off.  Let the waves of relaxation wash over, rather than fight it off and try to stay awake.  Let the nerve receptors have their conversation with the brain, rather than cut them off by fighting the doziness to make to-do lists for when you leave.

You may notice your blood pressure may start to change as you feel the calmness.  Some feeling cold and clammy, while others may feel much warmer.  This will be the interstitial receptors making their presence known.

As the interstitial nociceptors are being influenced, sensations of pain start to feel much more reduced.

Please don’t ask for work to be “harder” so you “feel it” – those Ruffini nerve endings just won’t do a thing under firm pressure, and the interstitial receptors won’t normalise either.  If the moves are too firm or the muscles are “plucked”, then other nerve receptors will be impacted instead.   Muscles are also likely to contract rather than relax, as they push back against the unwanted force.


If your issue is postural, then firmer moves may be done over tendons close to bones.  Enjoy the longer break after the move, knowing those Golgi receptors tend to have long, slow communications with the brain.

At the end of treatment, we’ll have you get off the table with both feet landing together.  Those Golgi receptors will keep firing and continue to help your posture after you leave.


Different moves, different nerve receptors, different pressures, different impacts…

You’re not feeling anything happening ?  The nerve receptors are doing their thing, and your body is feeling it, even when your head doesn’t sense it…



Resources and additional reading:

Wilks, John and Knight, Isobel.  Using the Bowen Technique to Address Complex and Common Conditions.  Singing Dragon, 2015.


Picture credits:

Doctor Jana ( [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Henry Vandyke Carter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons staff. “Blausen gallery 2014”. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 20018762. (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Neuromechanics (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The original uploader was Jeremykemp at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

JDifool (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons