Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Acupressure

The form of massage therapy is used for everything from immune support to anxiety relief.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Acupressure

If you've ever pinched the skin between your fingers for relief or worn a motion sickness wristband, then you've used acupressure, whether or not you realized it. Annotated charts of human anatomy can make acupressure seem pretty complex, and it is. But it's also very accessible in that almost anyone can start a self-practice. And since it encompasses the entire body, traditional Chinese medicine connects it to just about any health benefit you can think of. Intrigued? Here's what you should know.

What is acupressure therapy?

Acupressure is a thousands-year-old form of massage therapy that involves applying pressure to certain points on the body to address ailments. According to traditional Chinese medicine, people have meridians or channels throughout the body. Qi, which is understood as a life-sustaining energy force, runs along those meridians. Qi can become stuck at some points along the meridians, and the goal of acupressure is to keep the energy flowing using pressure at specific points. Western medicine doesn't include the existence of the meridians, so acupressure isn't part of mainstream medical treatment here.

What is acupressure used for?

There are hundreds of acupressure points on the body, corresponding to other parts of the body. (For example, there's a point on your hand for your kidney.) So, naturally, the practice has many associated benefits. As with any form of massage, a huge perk of acupressure is relaxation, one that you can get behind even if you doubt the existence of meridians. Acupressure is often used for pain relief, and studies have suggested it may help fight back pain, menstrual cramps, and headaches. The practice is used for many other purposes that have been studied less, including immune system and digestion support.

Should you opt for acupuncture or acupressure?

Acupuncture, which happens to be pretty buzzy among the wellness set RN, stems from acupressure. They're based on the same meridian system and are used to achieve similar results. Unlike acupuncture which is a licensed profession in the U.S., you can self-soothe with acupressure whenever you need it. "Acupuncture is a specific modality that has very tested results, and sometimes you just want to get that depth," says Bob Doto, LMT, author of upcoming book Press Here! Acupressure for Beginners. "But acupressure is something that you can do on the plane, on the couch watching Handmaid's Tale, whatever you're doing." (FYI, acupuncture is moving into mainstream medicine in the West, and there are way more benefits beyond pain relief.)

Where should beginners start?

Booking a treatment at a spa or massage therapy center is a good place to start for your first exposure to acupressure. While there isn't a certification for practicing acupressure beyond becoming a licensed massage therapist, you can ask if your therapist has specialized in Chinese medicine. If they have, they'll likely be knowledgeable in acupressure. They can also suggest points that might be useful to massage on your own between sessions if they know what you'd like to achieve.

If a treatment's not in the cards, you can start on your own with a guidebook such as The Acupressure Atlas. Once you know what point you want to work, you can start by applying firm but not painful pressure for a few minutes. "If you're trying to reduce something or calm something down, you would move counterclockwise, and if you're looking to boost something up or create more energy, you would move clockwise," says Daryl Thuroff, DACM, LAc, LMT, massage therapist at The Yinova Center. (E.g., counterclockwise pressure to reduce jitters, or clockwise to aid digestion.)

All you need is your hands, but products can help with hard-to-reach spots. Thuroff says that a tennis ball, a golf ball, or a Thera Cane can be helpful in some cases. Doto is a fan of the acupressure mat. "You walk on pointy, plastic pyramids. It's not really acupressure per se [they don't target a specific point but a general area], but I love those." Try: Bed of Nails Original Acupressure Mat. ($79; amazon.com)

What are the major acupressure points?

There are many, but here are some of the most noteworthy, according to Doto and Thuroff:

  • ST 36: Find the bony point right under your kneecap, then move slightly outside the knee to find a small divot. That's Stomach 36, and it's used for indigestion, nausea, constipation, etc.
  • LI 4: If you've ever applied pressure to the high point between your pointer finger and thumb, you were massaging Large Intestine 4, aka the "great eliminator." It's one of the most popular acupressure points for headaches and migraines. It's also thought to induce labor during pregnancy.
  • GB 21: Gallbladder 21 is a well-known point used to relieve neck and shoulder tension from excess stress. It's located on the back side of either shoulder, between your neck and the point where your arm meets your shoulder.
  • Yin Tang: If your yoga teacher has ever had you massage your "third eye" between your eyebrows, you were kneading the Yin Tang point. Mild pressure on the point is said to promote stress relief and relaxation.
  • PC 6: Pericardium 6 is located on the inside of the wrist and is used for pregnancy-induced nausea or motion sickness. (It's the point that motion sickness bracelets press.)
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