Stress Less: Acupuncture

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It’s pitch dark in your living room. You bang your shin hard against the edge of a coffee table, and momentarily you actually see stars. You reach down and rub the sore spot; within seconds you actually feel a little better. Although you may not be aware of it, you’re performing acupressure.

Touch heals, even if it’s your own. You press your fingers against your temples when you feel a headache surge, hold both hands over your lower abdomen for cramps, and instinctively rub the back of your neck when you feel tense.

The best part of acupressure? You don’t have to pay anyone to do it. It’s self-care par excellence.

Although many people think of acupressure as “acupuncture without needles,” the idea that finger and hand pressure could actually accomplish something predates acupuncture by 2,500 years. Doctors in ancient China introduced the idea of skin penetration with needles to enhance the fingertip pressure of acupressure.

Because of this, the rules of traditional Chinese medicine apply to acupressure. The body’s vital energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”), flows through channels called meridians. When the channels go out of kilter, the energy flow slows down or speeds up. In a system like this, the goal of maintaining good health (as well as healing symptoms) is to balance the flow of qi. If you are totally healthy, say doctors of Chinese medicine, your qi flows freely, like water through pipes.

Along the 14 meridian paths are individual points that open the meridian when pressure is applied or an acupuncturist inserts a needle. There are 365 points, each individualized by the name of its channel and by a number. Acupuncture students need to memorize the location of each point, but you do not.

A little background
Most of the acupressure in China is done for acute illnesses and first aid for injuries. In the US, people use acupressure for stress reduction, pain relief, and improvement of overall well-being. By and large, acupressure is a self-administered form of therapy.

Since the points are identical to those in acupuncture, practitioners of Chinese medicine can perform it, but because it’s quite labor-intensive, they generally limit acupressure to patients who become excessively anxious at the sight of a needle. For this reason, you don’t find a lot of acupressure practitioners. If you search for an acupressurist on the internet, for example, you’ll usually locate a Shiatsu practitioner instead.

Do it yourself
There’s a right way to press on a point and here’s how: you’ll be using your thumb, finger, palm, or knuckle. If finger, choose the middle one, as it’s the strongest. You have to push firmly; don’t wimp out, but don’t be a masochist either. It’s supposed to be a “good” hurt, but if you don’t press fairly hard, nothing will happen.

Your first press should be for a slow count of twenty; release gently and repeat, adding a “twenty” until your final push holds for about a minute and a half. This translates to four separate pushes, each successive one a count of twenty longer than the one preceding it (20-40-60-80). Acupressure points follow a left-right symmetry, so when you complete a spot on one side, repeat on the other.

Two other techniques are important. If you’re treating points in large muscles, like your calf or thigh, firmly massage the area first with the heel of your hand. This will loosen the muscle and allow you better access to the acupressure point. If a point is located just beneath your skin, such as a scalp or facial point, tap the area quickly with two fingers before applying fingertip or thumb pressure.

You can learn acupressure techniques for stress reduction, anxiety control, energy enhancement, and overall good health from books and via the internet (put “acupressure meridians” into any search engine). There’ll be diagrams of the meridians, with labeled dots indicating acupressure points. If you have some misgivings about exactly where your points are located, a sensible step would be to visit a licensed acupuncturist and have her perform a full traditional Chinese medicine evaluation. She’ll ask you about your medical history, check your pulses and tongue for further diagnostic information, and give you an acupuncture treatment. At the end of the session, ask what points you could use for acupressure self treatment. She can dot them with a skin marker and show you what kind of pressure is needed.

A self-treatment from an acupressure text would read something like this: “For stress reduction, press and hold P-6 with your thumb, take a few deep breaths, and release. Repeat three times, increasing the length of pressure each time. Follow this by firm pressure at the spot between your eyebrows.” You’d discover that P-6 is on the underside of your wrist, about an inch below the palm of your hand.

Some other commonly used points:
• For stress, B-38, between your shoulder blades at the level of your heart (you needn’t contort yourself–just lie on a pair of tennis balls).
• For tension headache and to induce sleepiness, work GB-20, beneath the back of your skull, two inches outward from the midline.
• For frontal headaches, go for LI-4, treated by pinching the webbing between your thumb and forefinger.

Before you roll your eyes and snort in disbelief, believe me, I’ve tried acupressure and it’s extremely effective.

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