Acupressure, myth or reality?
Acupressure, like every important element of traditional Chinese medicine, has its detractors as well as its advocates.
The more purist scientists doubt the physiological basis of these procedures, while the resultadistas seem only to be interested in their apparently extraordinary results. But, what is acupressure? What’s it all about? What are its fundamentals? Does it really work? We will now answer all these questions.
What is acupressure?
Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, was the first great author of traditional Chinese medicine through his emblematic work Nei Ching Sou Wen, published nearly 2,600 years ago.
The last one is a variant of acupuncture itself but without the need for needles, which are replaced by finger pressure methods at the same strategic points of the body “meridians”.
This massive text describes the basic theories of traditional Chinese medicine, including Yin and Yang, capable of modifying the five constitutive elements of the universe: water, earth, fire, wood and metal.
The set of these components is known as vital energy – Qi or Chi -. Its balance gives health and diseases appear when this balance is lost.
In addition, it is explained that Chi is distributed in the body through energy channels called “meridians”.
The places where both acupuncture and acupressure are applied run along these meridians and range from 365 to 600 points, depending on the school being studied.
Acupressure techniques are applied to some of these points when the balance of vital energy has been lost and diseases appear.
Depending on the system or organ affected, several meridians will be approached with the final intention of eliminating energy blockages, restoring the flow of normal Chi and thus eliminating the symptoms that appear.
Fundamentals of acupressure
As previously explained,the purpose of acupressure is to re-establish vital energy when it has been altered for any reason.
It is evident that, for traditional Chinese medicine,health and disease are conceived from an energetic and spiritual point of view.
These concepts are acceptable as it is an ancient medical practice that originally lacked the scientific basis that we can find today.
However, the fundamentals of traditional Chinese medicine are not entirely empirical.
Acupressure First Study
Huang Di came to study corpses secretly to deepen his medical knowledge.
His texts described for the first time the blood circulation, with a dark (venous) and a light (arterial) blood, the existence and functioning of autonomous nerves and the genesis of degenerative diseases that for many years were considered incurable by Western medicine.
The anatomical and physiological studies carried out by Huang Di and his assistants described Yin as being in charge of the structural state of the viscera and Yang as being responsible for their functions.
Representing the internal organs, Yin was in charge of the five storers: heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys, while Yang referred to the six transformers: small intestine, gallbladder, stomach, large intestine, bladder and the triple heater, which is not an entrainment as such but a set of organic functions.
These organs are intimately connected by a complex set of meridians or energy channels, and if a disease interrupts this flow there is an imbalance of Yin and Yang.
The organism is able to bear without too many inconveniences an interruption of the flow of energy or imbalance of Yin and Yang if these are slight in intensity and time, but if the alterations are very intense, prolonged or have been caused by a defect in the function of the meridians, then disease appears.
It is in these moments of imbalance that acupressure comes into action.
This, like acupuncture, is aimed at:
- Diagnose the cause of the disease.
- Find out at which meridians the normal flow of Chi has been interrupted or an imbalance of Yin and Yang has appeared and, through the manipulation of the appropriate energy points.
- To tonify again the flow of Chi and to recover the balance of Yin and Yang in order to restore health to the affected individual.
One of the most widely used examples in literature specializing in traditional Chinese medicine is that of a patient with too many germs or microbes in his or her body, which can manifest as “bad heat” in the lungs.
If the meridian system fails to provide enough defense energy to overcome it, respiratory symptoms appear, expression of an excess of Yang.
The mission of the acupressor – a physician specializing in acupressure – is to re-establish energy balance, in this case by increasing the presence of Yin to “disperse heat” through the manipulation of certain energy points.
In terms of Western medicine, this would translate into increased defenses – white blood cells – to eliminate excess pathogenic microorganisms.
Does acupressure really work?
In the Eastern medical world, there is no doubt about it: acupressure works. This blunt conclusion is not a whim.
Using current scientific methods, many Chinese researchers have found that acupressure improves the basic functions of the body.
- It is able to increase the number of leukocytes in people who do not have enough.
- Reduces it in those who have too many as well.
- It increases the presence of antibodies to strengthen our immune system.
- Regulates blood pH.
- Controls the amount of numerous chemicals in our muscles.
But what does Western science say about it?
While there has historically been much skepticism towards traditional Chinese medicine in Europe and America, the most modern medical journals already consider acupressure to be a valid therapeutic method.
These even include it in protocols and algorithms for the treatment of various pathologies.
Recent studies have demonstrated, with greater or lesser value, the benefits of acupressure for pain management in a wide range of patients.
A study published by the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health in 2017 (Schlaeger et al.) showed that acupressure was able to decrease pain during childbirth, as well as the duration of childbirth itself.
Smith and his team arrived at a similar result in a study that involved almost 3500 women and that can be found in the Cochrane Library.
Acupressure is also useful for the management of postoperative pain, as demonstrated by Pouy and his partners.
These, in their 2019 study published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health conclude that this technique has a positive effect on pain reduction following tonsil removal surgery in children and adolescents.
This finding is also interesting because it involves a very vulnerable group such as pediatric patients.
They may also benefit from acupuncture, because they are much more afraid of needles.
The classical texts of traditional Chinese medicine recommend acupressure over other tools in these patients.
Other of the most frequent complications of surgery are nausea and vomiting associated with anesthesia.
In these cases acupressure is also useful as demonstrated by the study published in 2018 by the Journal of Perianesthesia Nursing (Ünülü M and Kaya N).
This paper concludes that specific acupressure of an energy point known as Neiguan Point or P6 significantly reduces the presence of postoperative nausea and vomiting.
An additional advantage of acupressure is the possibility of being self-administered.
A study by Murphy and his team was published this year in the scientific journal Pain Medicine.
In this article they commented on the effective results achieved thanks to self-administration of acupressure for the relief of pain and fatigue related to pain in the lower back or lumbar region.
The personal practice of acupressure also works to fall asleep in different settings.
The journal Sleep Medicine Reviews published in 2018 a very extensive meta-analysis showing how acupressure helped various types of people sleep.
This study included older adults, cancer patients, nephropaths on dialysis, obese people with sleep apnea, and other individuals with insomnia (Waits and partners.).
Since we mentioned obese people in the previous paragraph, they may be favored by acupressure to control their weight.
The scientific supplement Medicine (Baltimore) recently published a study demonstrating the benefits of auricular acupressure.
It works for obese or overweight individuals both to lose a few extra kilos and to modify their lifestyle and eating habits (Ching-Feng and colleagues.).
As well as these works mentioned, there are hundreds more that prove the benefits of acupressure for different people suffering from different diseases.
The physiological underpinnings of acupressure, like the vast majority of methods in traditional Chinese medicine, remain blurry.
Moreover, its application is rather holistic, there are practically no real contraindications for it and the advantages obtained far outweigh the doubts generated by its lack of scientific rigour.
Since the first mentions of acupressure in Nei Jing many methods have been described for its application, initially as part of Chinese massage therapy and then as a separate procedure. Among the most popular techniques we have:
All of them can be applied in any of the energetic points that are part of the meridians or flow channels of Chi.
The acupressure practitioner must decide, according to the patient’s signs and symptoms, which meridian should be treated, at what level, and through which of the above techniques.
Acupressure has almost no contraindication, as it is not an invasive method.
However, it should be avoided when there is the presence of an open wound in the area to be manipulated, any sign of infection or local bleeding.
Nor will it be applied in cases of vascular thrombosis, severe hypertension or coronary symptoms.
Finally, care should be taken with acupressure in pregnant women, especially in the first trimester of gestation.
In spite of this, acupressure is very safe and simple to apply, being nowadays a habitual procedure in all corners of the world.
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