Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Acupressure for the active guy: this ancient healing art can boost your energy and relieve you pain—without needles

Tom, a personal trainer in his early 30s, had an atypical technique: Instead of just showing his clients an exercise, he occasionally would do it along with them in order to reinforce proper exercise form. The side-by-side approach did wonders for client motivation, but sometimes left him with inflamed muscles, characterized by especially painful knots in his back. And while the Jacuzzi helped to relax his muscles, it wasn't enough to stem the pain.

Then a doctor showed Tom a simple solution: Applying steady pressure right into the knots with his thumb, his knuckles or even a tennis ball would cause the pain to lessen and eventually disappear.

Acupuncture, the ancient Asian technique of sticking needles into specific target points of the body, has gained credence with Western doctors for its ability to reduce pain and other symptoms of certain ailments. But if you're one of those guys who belong to the very large group of belonephobes (needle haters), you will be relieved to know that you can also stimulate these points merely by pressing into them with your fingers.

"For some conditions, acupressure can be just as effective as acupuncture, or even more effective," says James Dillard, M.D., a specialist in alternative health care and an assistant clinical professor in rehabilitation medicine at Columbia University in New York City. "It's great for getting out the knots in your muscles that can occur when you work out, or tightness due to chronic stress. And it can be especially helpful for pains that flare up occasionally."

You can do some of this yourself at home or on the field, without having to make office visits to a professional. As a result, "acupressure can give athletes--or anyone--a competitive edge," says Michael Reed Gach, author of Acupressure's Potent Points and founder of the Acupressure Institute in Berkeley, Calif.


All forms of traditional Asian medicine are said to involve a system of meridians in the body that help control an energy force known as chi. Stimulating isolated points along the meridians makes the chi run more smoothly, helping to heal the area of impact as well as related organs. Those who view acupressure from a Western outlook, on the other hand, believe it has value largely because it can help relax muscles and stimulate blood flow.

"One of the Western explanations for acupressure is that you're causing a counterirritation that helps close the pain gates in the spinal cord--just as you'd do naturally if you stubbed your toe and grabbed it," Dillard says. "It also probably stimulates endorphins. But if we don't know exactly why it works, who cares? If it works, that's great."

A few small studies have shown that acupressure can be effective in relieving pain and helping people sleep. And since it's easy and has no side effects, there's almost no reason for you not to try it. Obviously, if you have any serious injuries, medical conditions, or chronic or severe pain, consult your doctor first. And if you're a pregnant woman, don't even try acupressure without a physician's guidance--but thanks for reading Men's Fitness.


How much force is enough? "The amount of pressure should make the point `hurt good,' somewhere between pain and pleasure," says Gach. "If there's muscular pain, you need to push slowly into the muscle. If there's joint pain, press into the indentation between the bones. Once the joint releases, it increases circulation to heal the area."

Be patient, Gach adds. "You often need to apply pressure many times a day over the course of several days to feel results. The process can be gradual--it's not just like pushing a button."

Here's how to treat yourself for problems the active guy is likely to face. For best results, relax and breathe deeply.


SOLUTION Place a tennis ball on a pillow, then place your leg over it so the ball is pushing into the crease behind your knee. Find the sensitive spot just below your kneecap and just to the outside of the shinbone. Press into it lightly with your forefinger for about a minute. (If you may have a knee injury, see your doctor.)


SOLUTION Feel around through the muscle and find a spot that seems reactive--when you press on it, pain will seem to radiate outward. (Don't press on a bruised or injured area.) Using moderate force, press the spot with your thumb for at least a minute.


SOLUTION Use your heel to rub the junction between your big toe and second toe for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other foot. This spot purportedly benefits the gallbladder and liver meridians, which can be damaged by too much exertion.


SOLUTION For a preworkout boost, find any tender spot or knot along the back of your shoulders and press into it with your fingers for one minute. (If you can't reach, ask a friend.)


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