Acupressure

Written by: 
Richard Thomas, medical writer

What is acupressure and how can it be used to treat some everyday ailments such as nausea and fatigue?

Acupressure is the 5,000-year-old Chinese art of healing by applying pressure, usually with the fingers or thumbs, to specific points on the body.

These pressure points, known as 'acupoints' in English and tsubo in Chinese, are said to be part of a system of energy pathways or meridians that practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine believe runs throughout the human body.

Acupressure practitioners believe that applying pressure to various acupoints assists the body's self-healing processes by re-balancing the flow of subtle energy (qi) in the body.

Pressure should be firm and applied evenly for several minutes. For greater effect small rotations of the fingers and thumb on the point are sometimes also used.

Acupressure and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Acupressure is said by practitioners to be the origin of the associated practice of acupunctureA complementary therapy in which fine sterile needles are inserted into the skin at specific points. (the ancient Chinese art of healing by inserting very fine needles into the body at acupoints).

Both acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. and acupunctureA complementary therapy in which fine sterile needles are inserted into the skin at specific points. are part of the centuries-old system of healing that is today known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Read more on the theory behind TCM in acupuncture.

Variations include shiatsu (Japanese for 'finger-pressure'), Do In (shiatsu with stretching exercises, known as Daoyin in China), Jin Shen and Jin Shen Do (both using more prolonged pressure on key points) and Shen Dao (a combination of acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. with the Chinese spiritual philosophy of Daoism that lies behind Chinese martial arts).

Read more about shiatsu.

Acupressure and Western bodywork disciplines

Acupressure is also the origin of a number of Western practices and bodywork disciplines used both to treat various conditions and to promote health.

These include:

  • Reflexology (applying pressure or massaging parts of feet, ears or hands)
  • Chiropractic (manipulation of the spine, joints and tissues)
  • Osteopathy (manipulation of the musculoskeletal system)
  • Hellerwork (physical manipulation together with movement and posture work) and
  • The Bowen Technique (gentle manipulation of connective tissue, tendon, nerveBundle of fibres that carries information in the form of electrical impulses. and muscleTissue made up of cells that can contract to bring about movement.).

Acupressure is traditionally carried out by a trained therapist, but is also a well-tried method of self-healing. Unlike acupunctureA complementary therapy in which fine sterile needles are inserted into the skin at specific points., which requires the services of a skilled and experienced practitioner, acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. lends itself to self-help because there is no need for needles or any of the other instruments and tools of the acupuncturist's trade.

Acupressure and self-help techniques

While most practitioners would tailor their approach to the individual patient, and generally advocate repeated treatment sessions, many simpler self-help techniques recommend specific acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. points to alleviate particular conditions.

There is clinical evidence supporting the effectiveness of self-treatment by acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. for headaches, back pain, fatigue and nausea, especially that caused by travel sickness.1-9
There are also claims that self-treatment acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. can help a wide range of other conditions, from asthma to constipation. A great deal of anecdotal evidence exists to support these claims, but few formal clinical studies have been carried out so that at present there is a lack of definitive evidence of efficacy.

Acupressure is regarded as so non-intrusive that few medical experts query its use in self-help. Believing a therapy will work can go a long way to making it work.

In all cases, effective recommended points are many and depend upon individual response. Trial-and-error is often the only way to find out what is best for the individual:

  • Nausea (for example, travel and pregnancy sickness, or nausea brought on by treatment, chemotherapy for example) - sustained pressure on a point on the inside of the wrist, known as P6, has been shown to prevent nausea, including motion sickness. Elasticated wristbands incorporating a small stud that presses on P6 are widely sold in ports and airports around the world based on this notion1,2,4,7,8
  • Headaches - pressure on LI4, a point in the base of the fleshy pad where the thumb and first finger meet, is said to alleviate headaches caused by infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites., especially in colds and fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system.
  • Back pain - pressure on a point about 3.5cm (1.4in) either side of the spine in the small of the back can alleviate low back pain5
  • Fatigue - the points LI10 and S36 are among many said to counter fatigue and increase energy levels. LI10 is on the bulge of the muscleTissue made up of cells that can contract to bring about movement. between the elbow and the wrist, and S36 is a point below the kneecap on the outside of the shin bone.6
References: 
  1. Efficacy of a portable acustimulation device in controlling seasickness. Bertolucci LE, DiDario B. Aviat Space Environ Med 1995 Dec;66(12):1155-1158. Comment in: Aviat Space Environ Med 1996 May;67(5):498.
  2. Continuous PC6 wristband acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. for relief of nausea and vomiting associated with acuteHas a sudden onset. myocardial infarctionDeath of an area of heart muscle due to poor blood supply.: a partially randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Dent HE, Dewhurst NG, Mills SY et al. Complement Ther Med 2003 Jun;11(2):72-77.
  3. A randomized controlled clinical trial for low back pain treated by acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. and physical therapy. Hsieh LL, Kuo CH, Yen MF et al. Prev Med 2004;39(1):168-176.
  4. The efficacy of acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. and acustimulation wristbands for the relief of chemotherapyThe use of chemical substances to treat disease, particularly cancer.-induced nausea and vomiting: a University of Rochester Cancer Center Community Clinical Oncology Program multicenter study. Roscoe JA, Morrow GR, Hickok JT et al. J Pain Symptom Manage 2003 Aug;26(2):731-742.
  5. Simultaneous multiple-modality therapy for tension headaches and neck pain. Stone RG, Wharton RB. Biomed Instrum Technol 1997 May-Jun;31(3):259-262.
  6. Acupressure and transcutaneous electrical acupoint stimulation in improving fatigue, sleep quality and depression in hemodialysis patients. Tsay SL, Cho Y, Chen ML. Am J Chin Med 2004;32(3):407-416.
  7. Effect of acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. on nausea and vomiting during pregnancy: a randomized, placebo-controlled, pilot study. Werntoft E, Dykes AK. J Reprod Med 2001;46(9):835-839.
  8. Comparative efficacy of acustimulation (ReliefBand) versus ondansetron (Zofran) in combination with droperidol for preventing nausea and vomiting. White PF, Issioui T, Hu J et al. Anesthesiology 2002 Nov;97(5):1075-1081.
  9. The effectiveness of relaxation acupoint stimulation and acupressureA complementary therapy derived from acupuncture, which uses finger pressure rather than the fine sterile needles used in acupuncture. with aromatic lavender essential oil for non-specificHaving a general effect. low back pain in Hong Kong: a randomized controlled trial. Yip YB, Tse SH. Complement Ther Med 2004;12(1):28-37.