If you bump your knee, stub your toe, or whack your elbow, the first impulse is to touch the spot that hurts. That instinct — the need to soothe pain with touch — may be the essence of acupressure.
Acupressure is the practice of applying precise pressure, usually with fingertips, to various points on the body with the objective of balancing life energy, called qi in Chinese medicine or chi in the West. What exactly lie along channels of energy in the body called meridians. Envision the body as a house wired for electricity, but instead of cables, meridians carry the electricity. When the meridians are blocked or out of balance, pain arises.
Acupressure might sound wacky, specifically for Americans taught to seek healing in pills and operations. But acupressure is not a New Age contrivance. It’s existed for 5,000 years and is dependant on ancient understandings of the body as both a physical and energetic entity.
What Does Acupressure Do?
Acupressure unblocks meridians using gentle yet firm pressure on specific points across the energy lines, called acupoints. In reaction to the pressure, the brain oozes endorphins, chemicals that muffle pain signals and invite pleasurable feelings. In the absence of pain, muscles relax and blood flows more freely. As tension recedes, your body finds balance.
Acupressure isn’t only a remedy; it’s also a preventive measure. Strategically applied pressure enables your body to resist stressors and illness.
“Disease is the last stage of a procedure that begins with imbalance and disharmony with an energetic level,” says Jack Forem, author of several books on pressure-point therapy, including Healing with Pressure Point Therapy. “But when the body’s energy flows smoothly and harmoniously, it sustains life, nourishes the organs, and maintains health insurance and vitality.
“Quantum physics shows us that solid matter, including the body, is the outermost shell of the multilayered energy body, that beneath the physical surface are amounts of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatoms,” Forem says. “We know that subtle levels are more powerful than surface levels. The idea beneath energy-based modalities is that practitioners impact the whole by manipulating the subtle.”
The body has hundreds of acupoints. Imagine them like electrical outlets. Each is a place where the underlying meridian’s electrical charge runs close to the surface and is easy to access. Typically, an acupoint lies in an indentation, like the hollow at the temples or the notch between the collarbones at the top of the sternum. Actually, the word “point” is a bit of a misnomer, says John Hickey, cofounder of the Santa Barbara College of Oriental Medicine. “The Chinese character for pressure point conveys more of a cave or an opening,” he says, explaining that “point” probably came into use later when acupuncture brought needles into the picture.
Acupoints are the same for both acupuncture and acupressure. Should you be wielding a needle, you’d want to hit the bull’s eye, but acupressure is much more forgiving.
“Being spot-on the point is helpful, but if you are close enough, you’ll be fine,” says David Bole, PhD, director of the Traditional Acupuncture Center, a holistic healthcare facility in Gainesville, Fla.
You can use pressure points for good or evil. Practitioners of some fighting techinques exploit the body’s most vulnerable pressure points by striking them during battle. Hitting certain points with force can knock an individual out or make someone stop and gasp for air.
For healing purposes, practitioners apply pressure to points near an afflicted area. For example, pressure to many points on the head is helpful for ailments from the mind, like anxiety.
Other times, the most useful points, called distal points, take presctiption the opposite end of the meridian or opposite area of the body from the area of discomfort or pain. Stimulating these points opens the whole channel of energy.
“If a person involves me with a migraine, I might end up working on his foot,” says Bole. “Every point has its own personality, its own use.”
Don’t expect the average medical doctor or insurance company to endorse acupressure anytime soon. The metrics of Western medicine — clinical trials — are dull tools for measuring energetic nuance. But that doesn’t mean it’s not effective, especially for people with tough-to-treat conditions for example fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and addiction recovery.
Acupressure is safe for almost everyone, and basic techniques are easy to learn. Whether you are looking for a basic tune-up or dreaming about something more, give it a try.
Top 10 Acupressure Points
You could spend years memorizing the location of the body’s hundreds of acupoints, but some are thought power players. Many lie at the crossroads of more than one meridian and, therefore, are believed to have widespread benefits across multiple organ systems. (Note: If you are pregnant, consult a medical expert before using acupressure, since some acupoints may cause the uterus to contract.) Here is a list from Jack Forem’s Healing with Pressure Point Therapy. Each point has an assigned letter and number combination that corresponds to its location on the body (a typical referencing system used by professional acupressurists and acupuncturists), in addition to a more poetic name, based on its Chinese character and offering insight into the point’s location or benefit.
1. Acupressure Points for Arm Pain and Digestion
Pool at the Crook (Li 11): As its name suggests, this time is in the crook of the elbow. Hold your left arm in front of you at a 90-degree angle, as if it had been in a sling. Turn the left palm up. Place your right thumb at the outside end of the elbow crease. Press firmly. Switch arms.
2. Acupressure Points for Headache, Muscles, and Bowel Movements
Adjoining Valley (Li 4): Position your left hand palm down and lightly squeeze your thumb and fingers together. A fleshy mound appears in the webbing between the base of the index finger and thumb. Eyeball this spot, relax your left-hand, and using your right hand (thumb above, index finger below), press on this point.
3. Acupressure Points for Skin Problems
Sea of Blood (Sp 10): To locate these two points, sit inside a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Feel for a bulge inside your thigh muscles about two thumb widths above the top edge of your knee. The bulge is on top inside portion of the leg. Press around the points firmly with your thumbs or the knuckle of your middle finger.
4. Acupressure Points for Energy
Three Mile Foot (St 36): This point is four finger widths below the lower edge of the kneecap and one finger width to the outside from the shinbone. You’ll know you’ve got it if, when you flex your foot, the lower limb muscle (the tibialis anterior) moves beneath your fingers.
5. Acupressure Points to Relieve Stress
Bigger Rushing (Lv 3): This point is on the top of the foot, making it easy to find. Place the tip of the index finger at the webbing between the great toe and second toe. Slide your finger your foot about half an inch, before you feel an indentation. That’s the purpose. If you can reach, do both feet at the same time. If not, do one and so the other.
6. Acupressure Points for Sinus Congestion
Abundant Splendor (St 40): A bit hard to find, this point is worth the hunt. It depends on the outside of the leg, halfway between your anklebone and the center of the kneecap. Take a seat. Wrap your fingers round the back of the shin in the middle of the leg. Using your thumb, press in to the shinbone (tibia), and then slide your thumb 2 \” or so off the bone toward the exterior of the leg. Press firmly.
7. Acupressure Points for Menstrual Cramps
Three Yin Meeting (Sp 6): The 3 meridians of the leg cross at this time on the inside of the leg above the anklebone. To find it, press your thumb in to the center of your anklebone, then slide up the inner leg four finger widths. The thing is just off the shinbone (tibia), toward the back of the leg. (For more about your monthly cycle, see “What Your Period Is Trying to Tell You”.)
8. Acupressure Points for Kidney Health
Supreme Stream (Kd 3): Find this point by putting your right thumb on the inside of the prominent bone within the left ankle. Next, let your thumb slide toward the Achilles’ tendon. The point is in the depression between the bone and the tendon.
9. Acupressure Points for Migraines, Colds, and Neck Stiffness
Wind Pool (Gb 20): Corresponding with the gall bladder meridian, these two points are found along the ridge of the occipital bone. Put your thumbs on the base of your skull close to the hairline. Slide your thumbs across the bony ridge of the base of the skull until each thumb is midway between the spine and the ear. The points lie there, between the two neck muscles that come together where the neck meets the skull. (For additional about migraine prevention, see “How to Prevent Migraines”.)
10. Acupressure Points to Stimulate the Kidney Meridian
Associated Reason for Kidney (B 23): This pair of points lies on either side of the lower back just above the upper rim of the sacrum. The best way to apply firm pressure to these points is to lie on the ground with a tennis ball under you. Ideally, lie on two balls inside a sock to stimulate both points at once. Position the pressure an inch . 5 on either side of the spine.
This article has been updated. It was originally published in the April 2021 issue of Experience Life.
The beauty of acupressure is that it is something you can do for yourself anytime and anywhere. Acupressure isn't meant to be a substitute for medical treatment, specifically for a serious condition, but it is worth exploring like a supplement to other treatments. And it's always available in a pinch. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when giving yourself or someone else acupressure:
- Use your middle finger (together with your index and ring fingers lending support on each side) to press into the point firmly for 2 to three minutes. In some instances, the position of the point makes it easier to use the thumb or even a knuckle.
- If you're practicing on yourself, you may notice that some points are more sensitive than the others. That's normal. Adjust the pressure until it is strong but not painful.