Can acupressure relieve headaches?
Unlike acupuncture, which uses thin needles, acupressure involves applying physical pressure to activate pressure points.
Many people believe that complementary therapies are an effective treatment for everyday aches and pains. This article outlines the current research on acupressure for headaches. We also provide some simple acupressure techniques to try at home.
Acupressure points for headaches
Acupressure practitioners claim that activating the following pressure points can help relieve headaches:
People can find the third eye pressure point between their eyebrows.
Stimulate the third eye pressure point by applying constant pressure or gently massaging in a circular motion.
This pair of pressure points sit on the inside of each eyebrow, where the nose bridge meets the brow bone.
Using both index fingers, apply equal pressure on both sides.
Alternatively, stimulate one point at a time, alternating between sides.
Gates of consciousness
These pressure points sit in the hollow spaces on either side of the spine, just beneath the base of the skull.
Activate these points by applying firm pressure with the index and middle fingers of both hands. Alternatively, interlock the fingers behind the head and press the thumbs into the hollow spaces at the base of the skull.
Massaging the gates of consciousness pressure points may also help relieve neck pain.
The shoulder well pressure point sits about halfway between the shoulder joint and the base of the neck.
Use the index and middle fingers of the opposite hand to apply firm, but gentle, pressure to this point. Remember to do the same on the opposite side.
Activating the shoulder well pressure point may help relieve stiffness or tension in the shoulder and neck muscles. This could help ease tension headaches.
A person will find the union valley or hegu pressure point on the loose skin between the thumb and index finger.
Pinch this pressure point between the thumb and index finger of the opposite hand. Either hold the union valley pressure point or massage it by moving the thumb in small circles.
Repeat this process on the opposite hand.
Does it work?
Few scientific studies have assessed the effectiveness of acupressure for treating headaches. Of the studies that do exist, most use small sample sizes and lack adequate controls.
However, a larger body of scientific research focuses on the effects of massage therapy and compression therapy for treating pain and headache symptoms.
Both types of therapy involve stimulating myofascial trigger points. These are highly sensitive areas in the skeletal muscle that may contribute to tension-type headaches.
Massage therapy for tension headaches
One small 2015 study investigated the effects of massage therapy in 56 adult participants who experienced two or more tension-type headaches per week.
Over 6 weeks, some of the participants received massage therapy, and others received placebo therapy. The massage therapy focused on stimulating myofascial trigger points in the head, neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Participants from both groups reported reductions in the frequency of tension headaches. However, there was no significant difference between the two groups. The authors concluded that clinical improvements are sometimes due to a placebo effect.
However, the group who had the massage therapy did report a more significant reduction in pain compared to the placebo group. The study suggests that massage therapy may help to alleviate tension headache pain.
A 2017 study investigated the effects of massage therapy on people with myofascial pain syndrome (MPS). MPS is a type of skeletal muscle disorder that can cause muscle pain, tenderness, and tension headaches.
Researchers divided the participants into three groups: those who received massage therapy, those who received a placebo treatment, and those who received no treatment. The people in the massage therapy group received two 45-minute massages a week for 6 weeks.
Participants in the massage group showed significantly increased levels of pain tolerance at myofascial trigger points. Participants in the other two groups did not show this response. The study concludes that massage therapy might be useful in reducing myofascial pain and associated headaches.
Compression therapy for cervicogenic headaches
Cervicogenic headaches result from a disorder of the cervical spine.
A small 2017 study investigated the efficacy of a type of compression therapy for participants with cervicogenic headaches.
The 9 participants in the treatment group received four sessions of ischemic compression, while the 10 participants in the control group received no treatment. Ischemic compression involves applying consistent pressure at myofascial trigger points to reduce sensitivity in these areas gradually.
At the end of the study, the treatment group reported significant reductions in headache intensity, frequency, and duration. This suggests that ischemic compression may help to alleviate cervicogenic headaches. However, researchers need to carry out further large-scale studies to support this claim.
Acupressure for migraine
The findings of a 2019 study indicate that self-administered acupressure decreases fatigue among people with migraines. Fatigue is a common side effect of migraine. It can significantly reduce a person's quality of life, impact daily functioning, and even cause headaches in the future.
Tips for acupressure
A person may benefit from deep breathing during acupressure to further relax the body.
People who want to use acupressure techniques to treat headaches may benefit from:
- sitting or standing in a comfortable and relaxed position when performing acupressure
- applying firm, consistent pressure when activating acupressure points
- practicing deep breathing to help relax the body
- stopping treatment if new pain or worsening symptoms occur
People can speak with their doctor if they have any questions about including acupressure into their treatment program.
People can also work with a trained massage therapist or reflexologist to learn more about acupressure points. Professionals can show people which acupressure points might benefit them the most, and how to activate them.
There are very few scientific studies investigating the effects of acupressure for headache pain. However, a limited number of studies suggest that therapies similar to acupressure may be effective in relieving headaches. However, further studies are necessary to support this claim.
Acupressure may serve as a safe and effective complementary treatment for people who experience recurrent headaches. People may want to speak with their doctor before starting new forms of treatment.