An ongoing series highlighting complementary therapies, adapted from The Complete Guide to Complementary Therapies in Cancer Care
By Barrie R. Cassileth, MS, PhD, Chief, Integrative Medicine Service, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Complementary therapies are noninvasive, non-pharmacologic adjuncts to mainstream treatment. They improve patients’ strength and control of the physical and emotional symptoms associated with cancer and other illnesses. They provide self-help guidance to enhance body and soul at times when one feels vulnerable and life seems out of control. Complementary therapies are used as adjuncts to mainstream care of cancer and other illnesses, not as substitutes. They improve physical and emotional function and manage stress and symptoms of aging, regardless of health status. Complementary therapies are rational, evidence-based practices delivered or taught by trained practitioners. They include mind-body practices such as meditation and self-hypnosis; massage therapies; nutritional counseling; physical fitness, including programs such as aerobic exercise, qigong, tai chi, yoga, and many other practices; music therapy; and acupuncture.
Acupressure is finger pressure on the same acupoints used in acupuncture—and for the same problems. These include the relief of pain and stress in a particular area or part of the body. Pressure can be applied by one’s own or another’s fingers. Acupressure probably was a formalized outgrowth of the natural human tendency to stroke, massage, or press the body until pain is relieved.
One can imagine the process becoming increasingly sophisticated over the centuries, as pressing specific points on the body was found, perhaps by group consensus, to relieve distress in particular locations. In turn, acupressure seems to have given rise to the more technological albeit still ancient variation: acupuncture.
Although shiatsu often is assumed to be the same as acupressure, it is not. They are similar in that they both involve applying pressure to acupoints. Shiatsu, however, is new and focused on prevention rather than healing. It is a modern outgrowth of ancient acupressure.
What It Is
Acupressure is acupuncture without the needles. A type of massage, it involves placing very firm finger pressure for a few minutes on an acupoint, which is a specific place on the skin. More than 100 acupoints dot the lengths of hypothesized meridians (channels) that run vertically from head to toe throughout the body. The acupoint to be pressed is determined according to which energy channel is blocked and therefore believed to have caused the problem.
There are 14 meridians, 12 of which are bilateral—that is, the same points exist on both sides of the body. The two remaining meridians, which are unilateral, run along the midline of the body. Meridians are the invisible interior channels through which qi (life force or vital energy) is believed to travel throughout the body. These pathways are not consistent with any biological systems known to Western science, such as specific nerves or blood vessels. Each acupoint is believed to control particular body organs or functions.
According to Chinese lore developed thousands of years ago, acupressure is said to remove trapped energy, assist the free flow of the life force, and dissipate problems in areas of the body associated with a particular meridian.
Assertions made for acupressure vary by practitioner. Some claim that the technique successfully treats obesity, arthritis, and pain and improves blood circulation. Others believe that acupressure can function as an effective preventive measure, maintaining health through the promotion of balance in body organs and systems. The claims of others, especially those in mainstream medicine, are more modest, tending to stress acupressure’s ability to relieve pain and anxiety in many people.
Beliefs on Which It Is Based
Acupressure stems from the ideas on which traditional Chinese medicine rests, and it is rooted in the beliefs and the assumptions of that ancient healing system, including the flow of qi throughout the body. When qi meets no blockages and can move smoothly, balance and harmony are said to exist in the body, a state equivalent to health. Conversely, when the flow of qi is blocked, internal imbalance results, a condition that is tantamount to illness.
The fundamental belief behind acupressure, then, is that pressing certain points on the body—the acupoints—can remove energy blocks along relevant meridians, returning balance to the body and enabling healing to occur. Although it may not work in this way, it does work.
Research Evidence to Date
Studies have assessed the ability of acupressure to treat several problems, including morning sickness in pregnant women, headaches, motion sickness, backache, nausea, and vomiting. In the acupressure/acupuncture system, nausea is believed to be controlled by a small area on the inside of the wrist called the P6 acupoint. Pressing that point is believed to control nausea, and research backs this belief.
A Cochrane meta-analysis was reported in 2009. It analyzed all randomized trials that compared P6 acupoint stimulation with acupuncture, acupressure, or other means versus sham treatment or drugs for postoperative nausea and vomiting. Forty trials involving a total of 4,858 adults and children were analyzed. The P6 acupoint stimulation controlled nausea and vomiting just as effectively as did antiemetic drugs. And acupressure worked just as well as acupuncture.
Many other well-conducted published studies also support the value of acupressure for nausea and vomiting as well as for anxiety and pain. One trial compared acupressure versus physical therapy for the treatment of pain, disability, and functional status. Acupressure was significantly more effective in relieving all three problems, and its benefits lasted at least until the six-monthfollow-up evaluation. The same results were found in a study specifically looking at acupressure for low back pain or chronic backache.
In the year 2010 alone, separate controlled studies were published; each documented the value of acupressure for chemotherapy-induced nausea, menstrual cramps and pain, chronic headache pain, and insomnia when compared with placebo or other therapies.
What It Can Do for You
Acupressure relieves pain and reduces other problems for many people. Especially because it is easily self-administered, noninvasive, and low- or no-cost, it is worth a try.
Some obvious precautions are in order: Acupressure should not be used as the only treatment for a chronic problem or for serious injury or illness. In these cases, a licensed physician should be consulted. Acupressure should be avoided near the abdominal area in pregnant women and near varicose veins, wounds, sores, or bones that may be broken.
Acupressure versus Other Kinds of Bodywork
Most bodywork involves manipulating muscle groups or the entire body. Acupressure is different. It involves pressing on a single point, which is often distant from the pain, believed related to the aching area on the basis of ancient Chinese concepts of energy flow and blockage.
Some people obtain relief by pressing the soft area between thumb and forefinger using the thumb and forefinger of the other hand. Press hard for a few minutes. It may work, and it won’t do any harm.
Anxious or Nauseated?
Press crosswise inside the wrist, about where your watchband sits, with three fingers of the other hand for a few minutes. Then switch hands. Research shows it is as effective as drugs.
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