- A new study concludes that self-administered acupressure can help ease chronic back pain.
- Acupressure uses fingers to massage pressure points in comparison to acupuncture that uses needles.
- Acupressure supporters say the technique is an inexpensive way to ease pain and a healthy alternative to opioids.
Reaching back to work out a kink from your back, in lieu of seeking professional help, may not seem like the most foolproof way of dealing with back pain.
Then again, it just might be.
A new study from the University of Michigan says self-administered acupressure can alleviate chronic pain in your lower back.
“Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, but instead of needles, pressure is applied with a finger, thumb, or device to specific points on the body,” said Susan Murphy, ScD, OTR, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at University of Michigan.
Murphy told the Michigan Medicine website that previous research showed acupressure is beneficial to people with cancer and osteoarthritis.
The new study, published in the journal Pain Medicine, looked at 67 people with chronic lower back pain and divided them into three groups: those using relaxing acupressure, those using stimulating acupressure, and people sticking to their prescribed treatment method from their primary care doctor.
The two acupressure groups applied the technique to certain body parts about 30 minutes a day over 6 weeks.
“Compared to the usual care group, we found that people who performed stimulating acupressure experienced pain and fatigue improvement and those that performed relaxing acupressure felt their pain had improved after 6 weeks,” Murphy said.
Up to now, there hasn’t been much official research on acupressure.
Mark Frost, a licensed acupuncturist and the chairman of the herbal medicine department of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, said the timing is finally right for science to recognize the benefits of acupressure.
“Western medicine is waking up to the validity of Chinese medicine,” Frost told Healthline. “Certainly, as generation after generation of younger doctors come into their practice, they’re more open-minded. We’re at an interesting period of medicine. In 10 years, we’re just going to have ‘medicine’ instead of ‘Chinese medicine.’”
Acupressure goes back thousands of years. It originated in either India or China, depending on the source.
The technique became popular in China as a natural extension of acupuncture, only with pressure from the fingers replacing needles piercing skin.
As time went on, practitioners discovered areas of pain and other health problems could be helped by maneuvering the problem areas or other parts of the body.
“The theories are the same, or very similar,” Eric Karchmer, PhD, a practitioner of Chinese medicine in North Carolina and the chief Chinese medicine officer at DAO Labs, told Healthline. “Acupressure is a subset of acupuncture. Acupressure can be really powerful.”
Frost said acupressure, like acupuncture, works two ways.
The first is direct application, “actually massaging and stretching out the muscles and increasing blood flow and healing oxygen to the problem area,” Karchmer said.
The other is pressure points in seemingly unrelated areas connected to the problem through meridians, also known as energy channels.
“That’s very powerful,” Frost said. “It relaxes the nervous system and muscles along the body. It can influence digestion. These points can influence local points… what acupressure does is relax the nervous system. When blood flow increases, healing happens. All acupressure points have a systemic effect.”
Karchmer said acupressure is also a good alternative for those not crazy about someone sticking multiple needles into their body.
“It’s very common to select points far from the problem,” he said. “With acupuncture, you might use a needle in the feet for a migraine. If a patient is needle-phobic, you can use the same points for relief. It takes a little practice.”
The University of Michigan study also addresses acupressure’s effect on conditions besides chronic pain, including insomnia, fatigue reduction, and depression.
With rising opioid addiction rates, acupressure can be a healthy pain management alternative to drugs.
“Better treatments are needed for chronic pain,” Murphy said. “Most treatments offered are medications, which have side effects and, in some cases, may increase the risk of abuse and addiction.”
“People need to be doing an array of things, as opposed to just taking a pill,” Karchmer said.
Not only is self-administered acupressure free, it’s relatively easy, Frost said.
He added it wouldn’t be the worst idea to first seek out of professional’s guidance.
“With acupressure, you really can’t hurt yourself, unless you do it so hard you bruise yourself,” he said. “Acupressure treatments should go for 18 to 25 minutes, and four to five points in the body. I would give them a few focal points on the shoulder, or on the neck, forearm, ankle, or calf.”
The results of the study will likely spur more research into specific methods and benefits of acupressure.
“Although larger studies are needed, acupressure may be a useful pain management strategy, given that it’s low risk, low cost and easy to administer,” Murphy said. “We also recommend additional studies into the different types of acupressure and how they could more specifically be targeted to patients based on their symptoms.”