Do “auto-acupressure” and acupunture work?

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Dear Cecil: The enclosed clipping from Glamour talks about a miraculous headache cure involving something called “auto-acupressure.” Supposedly there’s this special spot located at the base of the web between the thumb and the forefinger, and if you squeeze it long enough your headache disappears. Well, I had a mild headache the other night, so I did like it said, and sure enough, the pain seemed to go away, for a little while, anyway. What’s the deal? Is this just another example of the power of suggestion? Or is it like when you go to the dentist and you pinch yourself to distract yourself from the pain? Or is there actually some remote control switch in your thumb that turns off headaches? Which brings up another topic — do I correctly deduce that there’s some connection between “auto-acupressure” and acupuncture? And why does acupuncture work, huh, Cecil? Ramona F., Los Angeles


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Ramona, if you ask any more questions, I’m going to need a headache cure myself. No entirely satisfactory explanation for acupuncture has yet been offered, but studies have shown that the needles somehow stimulate the production of brain chemicals called endorphins, which are natural opiates that the brain generates to numb itself out to pain. Other research indicates there may be some sort of nervous connection between internal organs and various areas on the skin surface. Acupuncture expert Dr. C.W. Liu theorizes that nerves from different parts of the body enter the central nervous system at common junction points, and that the acupuncture needles blow the fuse, so to speak, for a particular collection of nerve fibers. (This is ridiculously oversimplified, you realize.) Thus needles stuck in your fingers, for instance, may knock out sensation in your face. This notion has yet to be proven, and there are a lot of people who think the whole acupuncture business is malarkey. But there are a fair number of scientists and doctors who believe it really does work.

Dr. Howard Kurland, the fellow who came up with the treatment mentioned in the Glamour article, has written a book entitled Quick Headache Relief Without Drugs, which explains how to apply auto-acupressure at a variety of points on the head and hands. For the “Hegu point” on your thumb, you’re supposed to feel for a spot in the muscle mass near the bone leading from the forefinger that tingles or feels unusually tender when pressure is applied. Having found the right location, you firmly pinch it with your other thumbnail (not the fleshy part of the thumb) as hard as you can stand without breaking the skin for 15-30 seconds. (Note: If this doesn’t hurt like hell, you’re not doing it right.) Do the same with the other hand; repeat as necessary. Of two friends who have tried the technique, one claims it did in fact make her headache go away, while the other says she’s damned if she can find the spot. Then again, she’s never been able to find her G-spot either, so maybe she’s just some sort of abnormal genetic mutant. At any rate, the Teeming Millions are invited to try for themselves.

An acupuncturist wishes to make a (heh-heh) point

Dear Cecil:

As a practicing acupuncturist I would like to add something to your recent discussion of acupuncture. First of all, it is not completely correct to say that “no entirely satisfactory explanation for acupuncture has yet been offered.” Traditional acupuncture theory, which involves the body’s intricate meridian system and regulation of qi/energy flow, is a very satisfactory and usable explanation of the therapy’s effectiveness.

Second, while endorphin release or nerve junction theories may explain some aspects of acupuncture mechanics, they cannot account for the broad spectrum of illnesses which have been found to respond well to acupuncture treatment, including such diverse problems as bronchitis, menstrual irregularities, depression and high blood pressure, to name but a few. Hopefully future research will enable us to integrate traditional acupuncture theory with modern medical concepts to the satisfaction of health care practitioners in both East and West.

— Dan P., AcT., Chicago

“Traditional acupuncture theory” is a quaint patchwork of folklore with about as much relevance to current medical practice as medieval European notions about the four bodily humors. While it may be useful as a guide to future research, no scientist would regard it as satisfactory as it stands.

More research

Applying ice to the Hegu point can reduce toothache or jaw pain, according to a recent study. Two researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that “acu-ice” cut the pain in half for 24 of 36 patients studied. You’re supposed to wrap an ice cube in cloth and use it to massage the web of skin between thumb and index finger for five minutes or so, or until you get a “deep achy feeling.” The treatment is good for half an hour. It’s believed the intense stimulus causes the brain to produce pain-killing chemicals that swamp the jaw pain.

Cecil Adams

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