Acupressure, the art of healing using gentle pressure applied with the fingertips, has been gaining recognition from branches of medical science. Originated from China, acupressure is used to treat an imbalance in the flow of body energy called Qi in the rivers of energy which are called meridians. There are 12 meridians that represent 12 major organs of the body such as the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, colon, spleen and bladder. Meanwhile, there are eight regulatory channels acting to gently restore balance of the whole body.
When I was first introduced to acupressure 15 years ago, I was more than a little skeptical. At the time, I was still totally committed to the Western medicine mind-set and there was no rational place for acupressure within that framework. Little did I realize that this ancient healing art would one day become a major part of my practice.
Acupressure developed in China thousands of years ago; it's even older than acupuncture. Scholars believe prehistoric humans found that holding the part of the body that hurt brought relief and comfort. Over the centuries, the technique was refined, taking into account rivers of energy flowing throughout the body - what we've come to call meridians. This body energy, also called Qi, exists internally as well as externally, like the fields of energy that run through and surround a magnet.
According to acupressure theorists, disease signifies an imbalance of the flow of Qi along the river-like meridians. Stimulating certain points on the skin along these meridians, however, can release muscle tension, increase circulation, and allow Qi to flow evenly and become balanced, thus healing disease.[1,2]
As traditional Chinese medicine has evolved, acupressure has developed into a complex healing art that uses 12 meridians and eight regulatory channels. The 12 meridians correspond approximately to 12 major organs - including the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, colon, spleen, and bladder - and pressure along them is used to treat specific disorders, depending on where pressure is exerted. The regulatory channels, on the other hand, function to gently restore balance to the entire body. There are a number of pressure points along each channel, too.
Overcoming my skepticism
Modern researchers are slowly beginning to find scientific evidence to support the existence of these meridians. One has developed a machine that is supposed to be able to measure electronic impulses in the skin that run along the acupressure meridians.
This kind of evidence alone wasn't enough to convince me that acupressure worked. Not until I had met people who were using the technique as part of their nursing practice and seen the outstanding results their patients were getting, did my mindset begin to change.
As I began using some simple acupressure skills in my practice, I also began to see positive results in my patients. Sol enrolled in an acupressure certification program. There I quickly began to appreciate that the art of laying on of hands can have a profound relaxing and healing effect on patients, demonstrating a type of caring that can't be communicated by mere words.
Of course, learning the more complex principles of the acupressure meridians and their relation to specific organs was much more of a challenge. But with the greater challenge came greater rewards. The more knowledge I gained, the easier it was to select the most effective treatment combination. And the results were sometimes dramatic.
My patients made me a firm believer
Take Sarah Collins, for instance, a 76-year-old woman who had been suffering for four months with malaise, muscle weakness, occasional dizziness, mild anorexia, and weight loss. After many trips to her internist and a number of antibiotics, she was referred to an ear specialist. He could find nothing specific but told her she probably had a viral infection. Eventually she was given lorazepam (Ativan) to help her cope with the anxiety of dealing with the situation.
Having once been a student in my stress management class, Mrs. Collins decided to see if acupressure could help alleviate her condition. During our first session, I used a treatment pattern that incorporated pressure points along the Bridge regulatory channel. Stimulating this channel can often gently restore energy balance in older patients suffering from dizziness. Because her physician also suspected a viral infection, I also used points along the lung and large intestine meridians to stimulate the body's immune response.
In acupressure, you use your fingertips to create gentle but firm pressure. In areas where there's a blockage of energy, certain points may be very sensitive, so you must rely on patient feedback to determine how much pressure to apply. You never press down so strongly that it's uncomfortably painful.
The other important precaution to remember when using acupressure involves the pregnant patient - obviously not one of Mrs. Collins' concerns. One commonly used pressure point is called the Hoku point, located in the web between the thumb and the index finger. It's helpful in relieving headache, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia, and depression but, because it stimulates the lower abdomen, overuse may bring on premature labor.
As a general rule, I'll hold down on a pressure point for two to five minutes. After holding a point for awhile, an experienced practitioner can usually feel a slight pulse. This pulse is the energy that flows along the body. When you feel it, it means that the Qi was blocked and is once again flowing.
During the process of holding and releasing the various pressure points - a single session can last up to an hour - the patient usually becomes very calm as the body secretes endorphins and enkephalins, relaxation hormones that help the body heal itself.
Mrs. Collins responded very well to her first session. In fact, she was amazed that she could feel the strength returning to her arms and legs so quickly. Six follow-up sessions brought continuing improvement. Now she's committed to maintaining her health by doing self-acupressure, using points I demonstrated for her.
Lorraine Amico saw similar benefits from her acupressure sessions. Originally she came to see me seeking relief from severe shoulder tension and pain. After three sessions she was so delighted by her response that she asked if acupressure might help her ear problem. A year earlier she'd developed inner ear congestion during an airplane flight. Her ears buzzed often but her doctor had told her she'd have to live with it.
For Ms. Amico's ear problem, I used a point on the small intestine meridian that's located in front of the ear, a point that's specific for tinnitus. Not only did the buzzing go away, but when she went on a recent flight, she was able to use acupressure to prevent an attack. Her tinnitus has not returned.
As a healing art, acupressure blends beautifully with nursing practice. It's easy to learn the basic skills and it can be used to treat a wide variety of symptoms, in a wide variety of patient care settings. It's also easy to teach patients how to use the pressure points themselves so they can participate in their own healing.
The skeptic in me is gone, replaced by a sense of awe that something so simple, gentle, and respectful can be such a potent therapeutic tool.
For more information
Additional information on acupressure, including a list of courses for health professionals, can be obtained by contacting:
Acupressure Institute 1533 Shattuck Avenue Berkeley, CA 94709 (800) 442-2232 (510) 845-1059 (In California)
1. Hin, K. (1994). Chinese massage and acupressure (5th ed.). New York: Bergh.
2. Teeguarden, I. (1978). Acupressure way of health: Jin shin do. New York: Japan Publications.
3. Hover-Kramer, D. (1996). Healing touch: A resource for health care professionals. New York: Delmar.
4. Gach, M. (1984). Intermediate and advanced acupressure course booklet. Berkeley, CA: The Acupressure Institute.
5. Locke, S., & Colligan, D. (1987). The healer within: The new medicine of mind and body. New York: E.P. Dutton.
6. Calbert, J., Gach, M., & Wilder, M. (1990). Acupressure for health professionals. Berkeley, CA: The Acupressure Institute.
JAN MAXWELL, RN, BA is a health counselor and educator in private practice in Castro Valley, Calif.