What is acupressure? And we’re not talking about the more widely recognized acupuncture. In the simplest terms possible, acupressure is essentially acupuncture without the needles.

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

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Acupressure involves a wide base of knowledge regarding traditional Chinese medicines in order to apply hands-on pressure, oftentimes delivered via fingertips, to specific points on the body to relieve stress, anxiety, and physical bodily discomfort such as pain. Acupressure borrows its base from traditional Chinese medicine, acknowledging that the body has a flow of energy called meridians and that by stimulating certain points of this meridian you can unclog energy pathways and rebalance the body.

Yet, outside of the holistic realm, scientists theorize that the effectiveness of acupressure may stem from a “release of natural pain-relieving chemicals in the body, called endorphins.” Others theorize that “the pressure may somehow influence the autonomic nervous system.”

Putting aside the theorizing and conjectures, acupressure has been practice for hundreds of years and with solidly positive results and beneficial experiences from practitioners and patients alike. This is especially true when it comes to pain management — from a simple headache to more chronic ailments.

What is Acupressure?

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Acupressure follows the same guidelines as acupuncture, yet, instead of needles, this type of treatment uses pressure via hands. Specifically, acupressure “involves the application of manual pressure (usually with the fingertips) to specific points on the body.”

How does it work?

Acupressure borrows from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), so TCM is a great place to start.

Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient form of healing that has been around for thousands of years. Practitioners “use various mind and body practices (such as acupuncture and tai chi) as well as herbal products to address health problems.” TCM relies on the belief that the “body has invisible lines of energy flow called meridians,” also referred to as ‘qi’ or ‘chi.’ These energy pathways — of which there are believed to be 14connect “our organs with other parts of the body” and when they become “blocked” or “clogged” it can lead to common health ailments such as stress, anxiety, digestive discomfort, headaches, and pain, to name a few.

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An acupressure practitioner will put pressure on certain points of the body that naturally unblock blocked meridians, allowing the body to heal.

Acupressure versus Acupuncture

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Before moving on, it’s important to understand the difference between acupressure and acupuncture.

Both practices rely on the same traditional Chinese medicine base of knowledge, the same meridian lines of energy, and the same points on the body to release or unclog these pathways. While acupressure uses a hands-on approach, acupuncture is a bit more aggressive. Acupuncture — dating back to 100 B.C. China — “entails stimulating certain points on the body, most often with a needle penetrating the skin, to alleviate pain or to help treat various health conditions.” Acupuncture has been found particularly helpful in relieving pain and nausea.

The Science Behind Acupressure Treatment

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While acupuncture may be more of an aggressive treatment, it doesn’t mean that it’s more effective. Many people shy away from needles (not to blame you!) and therefore acupressure offers a great alternative that has been shown to be just as effective for some patients. Plus, it can be used to treat a myriad of symptoms and conditions including headaches, menstrual cramps, motion sickness, muscle tension, nausea, vomiting, stress management, cancer-related fatigue, and many types of pain including chronic pain.

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For instance, a recent study entitled Self-Administered Acupressure for Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial reviewed the effects of acupressure for back chronic pain in the lower back. The study involved “67 people with chronic lower back pain and divided them into three groups: those using relaxing acupressure, those using stimulating acupressure, and people sticking to their prescribed treatment method from their primary care doctor.”

The findings, which were published in Pain Medicine journal, found that “self-administered acupressure can alleviate chronic pain in your lower back.” In fact, based on the studies results, it seems that acupressure worked better than modern treatment.

Per the lead author of the study, Susan Murphy, ScD, OTR — an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Michigan — “Compared to the usual care group, we found that people who performed stimulating acupressure experienced pain and fatigue improvement and those that performed relaxing acupressure felt their pain had improved after 6 weeks.”

Yet, it doesn’t just stop at pain management. Acupressure has also been a reliable source of treatment for nausea and vomiting, especially in those suffering from cancer or pregnant women. A report published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians looked at “the results of three previously published trials” and discovered that “acupressure (using finger pressure or an acupressure wristband) decreased nausea, vomiting, and retching.”

Acupressure and Endorphins

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Even though science backs the efficacy of acupressure, there are still many conjectures and theories regarding exactly how it works. One theory looks at the relationship between acupressure and its ability to help release those feel-good compounds called endorphins.

You’ve definitely heard about endorphins, but maybe you’re not sure exactly what they are, except that they make you feel great after a good workout! Endorphins are neurotransmitters — “chemicals that pass along signals from one neuron to the next … [and] … play a key role in the function of the central nervous system and can either prompt or suppress the further signaling of nearby neurons.” These neurotransmitters are “produced as a response to certain stimuli, especially stress, fear or pain,” originating all over the body including “the pituitary gland, your spinal cord and throughout other parts of your brain and nervous system.”

While the relationship between acupressure and endorphins is just a theory, “some studies suggest that acupressure releases endorphins and promotes anti-inflammatory effects.” This would account for the pain-relieving effects that acupressure is known for, as well as the euphoric sense that many patients come away with after a session.

Common DIY Acupressure Techniques

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Interested in trying out acupressure, but can’t afford a session with a practitioner? Luckily, there are a few very simple acupressure techniques that can be applied by none other than you! While you may not be able to get receive the full extent of acupressure powers — some pressure points physically can’t be accessed such as points on the back — there are a handful of super easy access points to relieve a few common ailments: headaches, digestive discomfort, and bodily pain.

Acupressure for Bodily Pain

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Sometimes you just hurt. Whether it’s from a difficult workout, internal inflammation, an old injury, or an unknown source. Luckily, acupressure is there to lend a helping hand! There are a host of “acupoints” in acupressure lingo — that focus on relieving specific types of pain. As a general, I just need relief!, pressure point, focus on the Great Rushing — also referred to as Liver 3 or LV 3.

This acupoint is “located on the top of each foot in the web between the big toe and second toe” and is known “as a source point,” of which every meridian has. Source points are high-concentration points or “hubs where internal and external energies gather and transform.” In short, they offer “access to the larger system.”

The great rushing acupoint is a great place to start with bodily pain as it relieves a myriad of pain-related issues such as “menstrual cramps, headaches, vision problems, coastal-region pain and shortness of breath, low back pain, insomnia, and more.” By stimulating this point, you’ll basically “get things moving” in order to clear blocked meridians. It’s great for those that aren’t sure what’s wrong but aren’t feeling right or good.

Acupressure for Headaches

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Even though headaches are a common ailment, it doesn’t make them any easier to deal with. Especially as a headache is incredibly debilitating and brings your entire day to a grinding halt. For those that suffer migraines, a relatively low-grade headache can develop quickly into a full-blown migraine. Acupressure is known to be a champion at relieving headaches, in particular, those that are caused by tension, anxiety, or stress.

First off, find the LI-4 pressure point, also called Hegu. The Hegu pressure point is located “between the base of your thumb and index finger. Once you locate Hegu, “press down on this point for [five] minutes,” using a circular motion, and make sure to practice on both hands. Repeat this process as many times as needed until your headache pain subsides.

Acupressure for Digestive Discomfort

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When it comes to relieving digestive discomfort with acupressure, there are actually a variety of ways to choose from. In fact, there are nine acupressure points associated with the digestive tract: union valley, crooked pond, outer gate, inner gate, three point mile, grandfather-grandson, three yin crossing, great rushing, and middle cavity. As many digestive disorders “arise from inflammation of the digestive tract that leads to decreased digestion and absorption of nutrients,” acupressure works to heal “inflamed digestive linings by restoring the balanced flow of energy throughout the body.”

Yet, you don’t have to stimulate all nine pressure points in order to get some digestive relief! If you’re practicing at home, try focusing on three of the main acupressure points associated with digestive health: three point mile, — also called Stomach 36 (ST-36) or Zu San Li — middle cavity, — also called Ren 12 or Zhong Wan — and heaven’s pivot — also called Stomach 25 (ST-25) or Tian Shu.

Three point mile is accessed on your leg. Bend your leg slightly, “place four fingers just below the kneecap,” then focus on the “index finger at the base of the kneecap.” The three point mile pressure point “is where the little finger rests, on the outside aspect of the hard shinbone,” where there is a tender spot. This specific pressure point is used to “strengthen weak digestion and improve digestive disorders, ranging from constipation to diarrhea, gas, bloating, vomiting, and nausea.”

Middle cavity is where the “energy of the stomach gathers and collects.” Locate your belly button and “locate the point where your ribs come together, where there will be a soft depression.” From there, “draw a line from the point where your ribs meet to your belly button.” The center of this line is the middle cavity, also referred to as the solar plexus. This acupressure point is used for multiple digestive issues including “lack of appetite and indigestion,” as well as relief of “stomach upset that is related to emotions … [and] … fullness from overeating, gas, bloating, and acid regurgitation.

Heaven’s pivot is “located on the stomach meridian … where all the energy of the large intestine gathers and concentrates.” Specifically, this acupoint is “where the upper and lower gastrointestinal tract meet and relate to each other.” To locate this acupoint, “place three fingers parallel and alongside the center of the bellybutton” and you’ll find the point “at the edge of the last finger, three fingers away from the center of the bellybutton.” Heaven’s pivot is known to alleviate “constipation, diarrhea, and any other kind of intestinal disorder.”

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