How does acupressure work?

When I get a headache, my friend presses a spot on my hand. Somehow, this makes my headache go away. How does this work? Your friend is using a very old (about 5,000 years) and widely practiced form of body work called acupressure. Like acupuncture, this practice comes from traditional Chinese medicine. Although acupuncture is more widely known, most sources suggest that acupressure actually predates acupuncture by about 2,500 years.

Acupressure and acupuncture, as well as other therapies such as Shiatsu and reflexology, are based on the concept of a person's energy, or life force. This belief system theorizes that a life force, known as chi or qi (pronounced chee) travels through the body along pathways called meridians. Traditional Chinese medicine dictates that there are 20 meridians. However, in acupressure and acupuncture, most work centers around 14 meridians: the 12 regular meridians (see sidebar) and two extra meridians known as the Conception Vessel and the Governor Vessel.


According to this theory, a block in the flow of chi results in discomfort or even disease. To release the blocked energy, or to promote energy flow to a certain area, the acupressure practitioner presses an acupoint. According to specialists in Traditional Chinese medicine, more than 300 acupoints have been identified along the 14 meridians. Each is assigned a Chinese name and an alphanumeric code, such as Shenmen (HT7).

The Japanese practice of Shiatsu, which literally means "finger pressure," is similar to acupressure. In acupressure and Shiatsu, thumbs are most commonly used to apply pressure, although other fingers, knuckles, palms, elbows and even feet can be used in some of the therapies. The degree of pressure that is applied varies, as does the duration. Anything from moderate to penetrating pressure is employed for several seconds to several minutes, and the treatment can be performed once or repeatedly.

The acupoint that your friend used to make your headache disappear is known as the Hegu (LI4) point. Hegu is the Chinese name and LI4 refers to a specific point on the large-intestine meridian.

Currently, there is no evidence in western medical science to support the theories upon which acupressure and similar therapies are based. However, a number of recent studies have been conducted to investigate the use of acupressure in the temporary relief of nausea and headache pain. Some of these studies suggest that applying pressure to certain points causes the brain to release more endorphins, small proteins that act as a natural painkiller.

Here are some interesting links: