Ever massaged your temples when you had a headache? Or rubbed the back of your neck when you were tired?
You were performing variations of acupressure without possibly even knowing it. Acupressure is an Eastern medical practice that involves the application of pressure (as with the thumbs or fingertips) to the same discrete points on the body stimulated in acupuncture for therapeutic effects (such as the relief of tension or pain).
Numerous studies show that acupressure can improve sleep quality and cognitive function. It can relieve pain, headaches and constipation, and enhance the overall quality of life.
Similar to acupuncture, acupressure targets the body’s meridians, which are channels that distribute our Qi (i.e., energy) throughout the body. Stimulating meridians at certain points called acupoints on the surface of the skin promotes health in ways specific to that acupoint stimulated.
“The idea behind acupuncture is to find areas along the meridians of the body that are blocked or out of balance and use needles or pressure to clear these blockages and restore the proper flow of Qi, bringing the body back to homeostasis,” said Kyndl Mueller, LAc, a licensed acupuncturist in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “This can be good for anything from physical pain, internal ailments or psycho-emotional disorders.”
While acupuncture uses needles to stimulate these points, acupressure uses pressure, usually from a finger, making it accessible for caregivers and older adults alike. Acupressure is also more accessible than acupuncture for people who are afraid of needles, which can be up to 25% of adults according to the CDC.
Although conventional Western medicine is still the primary medical modality of choice in Western cultures, Eastern medicine, also called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is quickly gaining steam as an effective choice for medical care globally.
Common acupoints for older adults
Acupressure can alleviate the aches and pains caused by numerous health conditions, such as sleep disturbances, pain and headaches. Research has also shown it’s particularly effective for two health conditions commonly found in the older adult age groups: constipation and diminished/altered cognitive functioning.
Acupoints to improve sleep
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, sleep quality is highly related to the heart meridian. From the TCM point of view, “the spirit resides in the heart” so that the heart controls mental and emotional activities. The primary cause of poor sleep quality is a deficiency of the heart meridian, but sleep disturbance can also be related to the spleen, liver and kidney meridians.
Shenmen (HT7) “Spirit Gate” – Located on the inner wrist crease in line with the little pinky, the Shenmen (or HT7) acupuncture point is the key acupoint to treat poor sleep quality. “The Shenmen is a point that is directly connected to the spirit and can calm the mind when feeling frazzled and anxious as well as cheer you up when feeling down and out,” Mueller explains. “Pressure here can help settle the nerves and bring a sense of peace to help get into good sleep rhythms.”
Sanyinjiao (SP6) “Three Yin Crossing” – Sanyinjiao, often called Spleen 6 (SP6), is a commonly used acupressure point that represents the intersection of the three yin (calming) meridians. Therefore, it’s often chosen as a complementary acupoint for effectively soothing the spirit and is also effective in calming the body before sleep. It’s located on the inner side of the calf, on the back edge of the shin bone, about four finger-widths above the ball of the inner ankle. (Caution: Do not stimulate this point during the eighth and ninth months of pregnancy.)
Neiguan (P6) “Inner Gate” – Neiguan (P6), which also has an effect on calming the heart and soothing the spirit, can be found on the inner part of the forearm (with the palm facing upwards), in the soft space between the two bones of the forearm, about the width of three fingers up from the wrist crease. Mueller states, “It has a similar effect on the spirit as HT7 (Shenmen/”Spirit Gate”), and the two can be used together to help promote a good night’s sleep. This is also a good spot to press on when feeling nauseous or a little unsettled in the stomach.”
Acupressure can stimulate certain meridians to alleviate symptoms of physical and mental exhaustion caused by severe pain. It can also alleviate these symptoms by activating certain chemicals in our bodies. Mueller explains, “Touch releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical in the brain that calms nerves and helps the body relax in order to relieve both physical and emotional tension.”
Stimulating the Auricular Shenmen decreases heart rate, anxiety and fatigue, which can provide relief while in pain. This point is located inside the notch located near the top of the earlobe close to the skull. “Because there are so many nerve endings in the ear, stimulating through acupressure has a major effect on the nervous system,” Mueller explains. “In qigong there is the practice of pulling and tugging gently on the ear which can clear the mind and calm anxiety, especially in those dealing with panic attacks or PTSD.” Recent research confirms this statement, showing auricular acupressure of the Shenmen acupoint to be effective with PTSD in veterans and also with anxiety and burnout in health care workers.
Taiyang (EX-HN5) is considered by many to be an extraordinary acupoint. Although Taiyang is not located directly on a meridian, stimulating it is still effective for alleviating headaches and improving blood circulation in the brain due to its proximity to the large complex of nerves in the forehead and temple. Taiyang (EX-HN5) is located in the temple about one finger-width behind the midpoint between the eyebrow and the outer corner of the eye.
Acupressure can help in relieving constipation symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating and gas by applying pressure to specific acupressure points on the abdomen. You can press with your fingers, or you can also use an acupressure stick.
Tianshu (ST25) – The two Tianshu points are located three finger-widths away from each side of the navel. This technique will stimulate the intestines and help with bowel movements and better digestion in general.
Zhongwan (CV12) – Zhongwan, also called Conception Vessel 12, is located at the midline of the abdomen, halfway between the belly button and the bottom of the sternum. This point is also used to promote spleen and stomach functioning. Stimulating this point can alleviate abdominal bloating, discomfort due to overeating, sour stomach, diarrhea, dysentery and abdominal distention.
Improving cognitive functioning
Making substantive changes to cognitive function using acupressure takes a little longer – anywhere from one month to a year – but can be highly effective.
Fengchi (GB20) “Gates of Consciousness” – Fengchi (GB20) is a multi-functional acupoint that improves blood circulation (including to the brain), thus improving brain function, repairing brain tissue, and eliminating stagnant blood. Fengchi lies in an indentation at the base of the skull at the back of the neck, between the muscles that run up the side of the neck and those that run up along the spine.
Mueller adds a tip regarding this acupoint: “This point’s name is also translated as ‘Wind Gate,’ indicating that it is an area where seasonal changes like cold air can enter the body and bring with it pathogens like cold and flu. To help protect your immune system, this makes it important to keep your neck covered with a scarf or high collar when out in the elements.”
How to self-administer acupressure
It’s easy to use the power of acupressure on yourself or your loved one. To start, create a relaxing and calm environment by dimming the lights, using calming aromatherapy, and playing soft music.
Encourage your loved one to connect with their breath, noticing the length of the inhale compared to the length of the exhale, slowly lengthening them to a point where they match in length without effort.
Mueller recommends three easy steps for each acupoint:
- Use deep, firm pressure, using the thumb to massage the point in a circular or up-and-down motion.
- Massage the point for one to two minutes, and ask your loved one to keep their eyes closed. They should remain calm and breathe deeply.
- Repeat as often as you’d like.
Acupressure is a gentle, accessible treatment you and your loved one can practice at home with minimal or no side effects. Remember, as with starting any new health care regimen, ask your health care provider beforehand, especially if you’re pregnant or managing a chronic health condition.