CK write: “I went to a physical therapist who uses visceral manipulation. . . . Do you know anything about this technique? Is it connected to the New Age?”
From what I have discovered, visceral manipulation is not based in science (or in the New Age, for that matter) and any claims about its effectiveness are based on testimony, not clinical studies.
Visceral Manipulation (VM) was developed by a French Osteopath and Physical Therapist named Jean-Pierre Barral who claims he became interested in biomechanics while working as a physical therapist in a hospital in Grenoble, France. It was here that he met Dr. Arnaud, a specialist in lung diseases and a master of cadaver dissection. While working with Dr. Arnaud, Barrell learned about patterns of stress in the tissues of cadavers and began to study biomechanics in living subjects. This is how he was introduced to the visceral system in the body along with its potential to promote lines of tension in the body and the notion that tissues have memory.
In 1974, he became an osteopath and formed the basis for what would become visceral manipulation while working on a patient he was treating with spinal manipulations. During the preliminary examination, the patient related that he felt relief from his back pain after going to an “old man who pushed something in his abdomen.” Intrigued, Barral began to study the relationship between the viscera and the spine, which is how he began exploring stomach manipulations.
According to the Science-based Medicine blog, in this Youtube video, Barral demonstrates how he "listens with his hands" to detect tension in the body. He begins by listening to the top of the patient’s head to determine where the problem lies, then uses his hands in a specific area to further localize the problem.
“In this demonstration he detects something in the stomach which he says could be from decreased acidity or emotional tension,” blog author Harriet Hall writes. “Then he listens to the skull repeatedly with both hands, does something simultaneously to the neck and abdomen, and finally he is satisfied that his hands are telling him that he has corrected the problem.”
Barral claims that organs remember physical and emotional traumas, and each organ is connected to specific emotions, Hall continues. He also believes that “structural relationships” (peripheral, spinal, cranial) can self-correct after VM treatments. Proponents claim that it can be used to treat everything from digestive disorders to anxiety and endometriosis.
Barral began to teach VM in the U.S. in 1985 and has since trained a team of instructors who teach the practice around the world.
The only problem is that there is no proof to support any of Barral’s claims about his practice.
Dr. Edzard Ernst, former Chair in Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter and founder of the medical journal, Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies, confirms that there are no studies on visceral manipulation in any medical journals.
“My own searches resulted in precisely zero papers, and Medline returns not a single article of Barral J-P on VM, osteopathy or manipulation," Ernst states.
Even though the Barral Institute’s website claims that there are “Comparative Studies” which found VM beneficial for various disorders, Hall was also unable to locate any of these studies.
“I won’t even attempt any evaluation of the literature, because there’s nothing worth evaluating,” she writes. “The extensive bibliography provided on the website is not helpful. It provides links to popular articles by Barral, to published studies that are not pertinent to VM, and to a few uncontrolled pilot studies and case reports where the clinical significance of the reported changes is uncertain or where any observed improvement can’t be attributed to VM itself.”
Even though the American Physical Therapy Association has approved of the practice – which explains why CK encountered it during a visit to a physical therapist, but this decision has come under fire.
Visceral manipulation needs more scientific proof before its claims can be believed.