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All about acupressure

3 minute read
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This ancient Chinese form of massage may help you feel better. Learn how it can ease headaches, muscle soreness and more.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

Are your calf muscles sore after a workout? Do you have a headache? Acupressure just might ease your pain.

Acupressure is a treatment used in traditional Chinese medicine. It involves releasing muscle tension at pressure points in the body. The goal is to lower pain and discomfort. It’s now considered a form of complementary medicine in the U.S.

Learn the basics of acupressure, then find out ways you can try it at home.

What exactly is acupressure?

Acupressure is an ancient form of massage. You target your body’s pressure points with your fingers or thumbs to ease pain. Pressing these “acupoints” can help your muscles relax and improve your blood flow, per the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, but it doesn’t use needles.

(Learn more about the health benefits of massage therapy.)

The goal of acupressure and acupuncture is to move vital energy (called “qi”) through channels on the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, pain and illness happen when qi gets stuck in a channel, says Julie Suarez Cormier. She’s an acupuncturist at the University of Vermont Medical Center in South Burlington.

When you press acupoints along those channels, you move the stuck qi that’s causing the blockage. Practitioners say acupressure can help relieve:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Motion sickness
  • Muscle pain

Acupressure is a good option for people who are nervous about needles.

Shop for acupressure mats, foot pain relief balls and other massage products at the Optum Store and have them shipped directly to your front door. Get started.

How does acupressure work?

It’s not entirely clear. Some experts think the pressure helps the body release pain-relieving chemicals. Others believe it affects the autonomic nervous system. This is the part of your body’s nervous system that controls breathing, the heart and digestion.

There haven’t been a lot of studies on acupressure. Some research suggests it could help with certain conditions. A 2019 study found that acupressure or acupuncture was linked to lower pain levels in cancer patients.

In a 2017 study, athletes with sports injuries reported less pain after an acupressure massage. Another 2017 study found that acupressure massage improved sleep quality in seniors.

Some people use special acupressure wrist bands to prevent motion sickness. But studies are mixed on whether acupressure helps prevent nausea, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Try acupressure at home

You can give yourself an acupressure massage. “It’s free and you can do it anywhere,” says Gwenn Herman. She’s the clinical director of Pain Connection in Tucson, Arizona.

“Your ears, hands and feet have all the acupressure points in the body,” Herman says. “Every acupressure point is related to an organ in your body.” Here are a few massages you can try.

Total hand massage: This routine stimulates your whole body, says Herman. Use light pressure.

  • Using the thumb of your left hand, start at the bottom right of the palm of the other hand. Use small circular motions to massage your entire palm.
  • Then go to your pinkie. Massage it all the way to the top, and then massage the sides. Repeat this with all of your fingers. Then massage the other side of your hand the same way.
  • Go back to any area where you felt pain. Work on that area until the pain lessens. Repeat the massage on your other hand. Try softer and harder pressure.

Help for headaches: This massage can help ease headaches.

  • Locate the pressure point in the V between the base of your thumb and your pointer finger.
  • Use your index finger and thumb of your opposite hand to apply pressure to the fleshy area. Hold for a few minutes.

Some simple devices such as acupressure mats and foot pain rollers can make acupressure even easier to do at home. They target the same acupoints.

Bottom line: Give acupressure a try. You might find that it releases tension, relieves pain and relaxes you.

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Additional sources
Benefits of acupressure: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (2022). “Acupressure for Pain and Headaches”
Cancer patients: JAMA Oncology (2019). “Clinical Evidence for Association with Acupuncture and Acupressure with Improved Cancer Pain”
Sports injuries: Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine (2017). “Does acupressure hit the mark? A three-arm randomized placebo-controlled trial of acupressure for pain and anxiety relief in athletes with acute musculoskeletal sports injuries”
Sleep: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2017). “Acupressure, Sleep and Quality of Life in Older Institutionalized Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial”
Nausea: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (2017). “Complementary Health Approaches for Travelers”