Pounding headache? For near-instant relief sans medication, give acupressure a try.

By Karen Asp
August 17, 2020
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Now that life has become more stressful than ever, your head might be aching more often. While stress isn’t the only cause of headaches, it’s certainly one of them. Yet before you reach for aspirin or NSAIDs (like ibuprofen) to relieve a nagging headache, try something that doesn’t come with medication-induced side effects and can be done anywhere—acupressure.

What is acupressure, and how does it work?

Acupressure has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, and it’s based on similar principles as acupuncture (but without the needles), starting with meridians. Meridians are natural pathways in the body that allow energy, or qi, to circulate—but when that qi becomes blocked, pain and sickness can ensue. 

Using physical pressure to stimulate certain points along these energy pathways (there are 365 classical acupoints, but others do exist), you can help restore balance and allow your body to heal. 

“Chinese medicine operates on the theory that the medication you need is already in your body," says Malcolm B. Taw, MD, director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine in Westlake Village, Calif., and an associate clinical professor in the UCLA Department of Medicine. “By stimulating these points, different neurotransmitters, hormones, and endorphins—all of which have a therapeutic effect, especially for pain—are released.” 

The benefits of acupressure are numerous and include reducing pain, relieving stress, and preventing or treating headaches. While most of the research focuses on acupuncture, Dr. Taw says that data from acupuncture studies can be extrapolated to acupressure since theories between the two practices are so similar. 

He points to one from the scientific journal Human Brain Mapping, in which researchers found that acupuncture done on a specific point (Large Intestine 4, located in the fleshy space between the thumb and forefinger) regulates activity of the limbic system, which is involved with pain sensations and the mind-body connection. 

With headaches in particular, acupressure is both preventive and therapeutic for existing pain, so Dr. Taw recommends starting acupressure when you feel a headache or migraine coming on. You can also prevent flare-ups of headaches in general by doing acupressure regularly, even daily if you’d like.

How to find the right acupressure points for headache relief

Fortunately, you don’t have to visit a trained practitioner to experience the benefits of this natural headache remedy—you can easily do it yourself, at home. (In fact, if you’ve ever instinctively rubbed your temples at the onset of a headache, you’re already employing a form of acupressure.) Honing your technique and understanding which precise points on the body to hit for maximum relief, can help you quell your next headache. “Done right, acupressure can be quite effective,” says Dr. Taw, adding that many people notice immediate improvement in their headache pain. 

Tips on acupressure technique

  • Start with a “low and slow” approach. First, apply enough pressure that you feel a tender, achy sensation. “If you don’t get that feeling, it won’t be as effective,” Dr. Taw says. 
  • Once you get the right pressure, move your finger in a rotating motion or an up-and-down motion. 
  • Go slowly at first, stimulating the area for 15 to 30 seconds, although you can certainly do so for longer.

4 Effective Acupressure Points for Headache Relief

Here are four beneficial pressure points for reducing headaches. Try targeting all four (and repeat any acupoints that feel the most tender). If you have limited time, begin with the first two, which seem to be the most effective. 

1. Large Intestine 4 (LI4)

This acupoint is known as Large Intestine 4 (LI4) and is located between your thumb and index finger. To find it, hold those two fingers together (as if you’re making an “OK” sign with that hand). Between the thumb and index finger, you should see a high point on the top side of your hand. Place the thumb of your opposite hand on this spot and apply pressure to begin stimulating it. 

One caveat: You should avoid this acupoint if you’re pregnant. “Certain acupressure points like this one can stimulate [labor],” Dr. Taw says. 

2. Gallbladder 20 (GB20)

This spot is at the base of the skull. To find GB20, interlace your fingers, keeping the thumbs free, and place your palms on the back of your head with thumbs facing down. Feel with your thumbs to find the tender, grooved points where your neck muscles attach to your skull. Once you find that, use those thumbs to stimulate those areas. 

3. Triple Energizer 3 (Zhong Zhu)

On the top of one hand, find the groove between your fourth and fifth fingers (ring and pinky fingers)—slightly farther toward your wrist than the space between those last two knuckles. Use the thumb of your opposite hand to press and stimulate that point. 

4. Gallbladder 21 (GB21)

GB21 spots sit on both sides of the the very tops of your shoulders, at the midpoint of each trapezius muscle. To find it, use the thumb and middle finger of your opposite hand to pinch the shoulder muscle upward (the part that rises up is where to start applying pressure once you release the pinch). Stimulate deep into that point for a few seconds, then work your way up and down that muscle. This can also be effective for relieving neck and shoulder tension. You can even cross your arms over your chest and get both sides simultaneously.