Acupressure for Chronic Pain Relief

By: Amy Montia, Licensed Massage Therapist.

Acupressure is one of the many techniques in medical massage that may be helpful for pain relief. Let’s explore what acupressure is, how it feels, and who might benefit from it. Let’s also, compare it to some other similar techniques (specifically acupuncture, trigger point therapy, myofascial therapy, and shiatsu), and share some interesting recent research studies that highlight similarities between Acupressure/Acupuncture (Eastern Therapies) and myofascial release and trigger point therapy (Western Therapies), suggesting they may be fundamentally quite similar! This is great news for anyone looking to massage therapy options for relief from chronic musculoskeletal pain.

What is Acupressure?

Acupressure is a manual therapy technique where palm, elbow, foot or thumb pressure is applied to the body along defined lines (known as energy meridians). The energy lines cover the entire body longitudinally and are the cornerstone of Traditional Chinese medicine, developed over 2,000 years of practice. Oriental medicine believes that disease and pain reside in both body and mind when energy flow through these lines becomes blocked or unbalanced. Acupuncture is the more well-known practice for balancing meridians and restoring smooth energy (Qi) flow. In acupuncture, the practitioner inserts fine needles superficially under the skin into one or several of 361 acupoints along the meridians to treat the patient. In Western practice, a similar technique called dry needling inserts the needles directly into localized pain regions to help “release” tight tissue and encourage pain relief.

Acupressure massage works in the same way as its needled counterparts, but manual pressure is used in place of needles. Acupressure is performed on bare skin or through light clothing, and oil/lubricant is rarely used. It’s a great option for anyone interested in exploring complementary medicine for aches and pains but is hesitant about needles.

Acupressure is often interchanged with Shiatsu. While the two disciplines are similar, some differences are usually of little concern to the person seeking treatment, as both techniques have great potential for providing chronic pain relief. The differences lie primarily in the practitioner’s technique.

Acupressure has some intriguing similarities to Western-style (i.e. musculoskeletal based) therapies, specifically Myofascial Release (MFR) and Trigger Point Therapy (TPT). To me, Myofascial Release and Trigger Point Therapy, are like a rediscovery and confirmation of the healing principles behind Acupressure. Myofascial Meridians, described best byTom Myers, are connective tissue (fascial) webs that wind around the body, and they look strikingly similar to the pattern of the energy meridians described in Chinese medicine. And Trigger Points described originally by Janet Travell as “specific sensitive areas in muscle and fascia best treated using manual pressure or dry needling to treat musculoskeletal referred pain”, are often anatomically similar to Eastern Acupoints. Fascinating! More about this below.

Acupuncture and Myofascial Trigger Point Therapy speak a similar language

Research in 2008 led by Dr. Peter Dorsher at the Mayo Clinic suggests that Acupuncture and Myofascial Trigger Point Therapy are anatomically and clinically quite similar in their uses for treatment of pain disorders. He found that 92% of common trigger points correspond with Acupoints, and 95% of those points are similar in their clinical correspondence, meaning the TP referral pattern follows meridian pathways described over 2,000 years ago. There is growing acceptance in the scientific field that fascial change at the microscopic level is the mechanism of action in acupuncture therapy. All these therapies are perhaps speaking the same language to treat chronic musculoskeletal pain: by resetting nerve transmission through myofascial pathways. Acupuncture and acupressure use needles or manual pressure, respectively, to achieve this, while TP therapy uses targeted pressure and stretching to release nerves trapped amid tight myofascial webs.

One last interesting research finding: a research group in China used CT scans to visualize differences in physical composition and structure around acupuncture points. They saw that acupoints have a higher microvascular density around thicker blood vessels, and higher oxygen pressure than defined “non-acupoints.” This lines up well with one of the main goals of massage therapy in general, which is to restore and encourage the smooth flow of oxygenated blood through an area of discomfort.

So there you have it. Acupressure is a gentle and conservative, yet effective massage therapy option for people with chronic pain or discomfort. Many practitioners (like me) often provide sessions that incorporate acupressure, myofascial and trigger point therapy into a single session. This would be a great way to introduce yourself to the world of acupressure, so give us a call now or reach out to us by filling out the form below.

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