Pressure points have been present throughout pop culture; in Star Trek, Spock applied the “Vulcan nerve pinch” on the base of a person’s neck to knock them unconscious. The fictional “pinch,” Star Trek fans and writers explained, supposedly blocked blood from reaching the brain and thus caused instantaneous unconsciousness. Scientifically, of course, there’s no such thing as a “Vulcan nerve pinch” that knocks people out. Yet somehow we find ourselves clenching when someone rubs our temples too hard or a masseuse presses deep on the muscles in our neck, near our jawline.
Movies have shown us that pressing down on certain parts of the body can knock you out or even kill you — but how much of this is backed by science? There remains some confusion and controversy as to what exactly “pressure points” are, and whether putting pressure on them is good or bad. The fact is, pressure points are sensitive parts of the body that can either be used for healing or pain — whether massaged or struck, they can help you feel better, but they can also impair you. Whether or not touching pressure points can lead to death is unknown and usually dismissed by scientists but explored a little below.
Martial Arts vs. Medicine
The notion of pressure points originally began in Japanese martial arts. It was Minamoto no Yoshimitsu, a Japenese samurai who lived from 1045 to 1127, who reportedly was the first to introduce the idea of pressure points into martial arts fighting. Yoshimitsu dissected the bodies of men killed during battle in order to better understand what little spots in their body were important to either cause pain or death, if hit or touched correctly. This fine art of fighting and killing, of course, took years of training to master; not just anyone could know which angle to strike the right nerve or joint, and where and when to do it.
But pressure points weren’t only used for ways to kill or maim people; they were also incorporated into traditional Chinese medicine, which believes that “meridian points” are the locations in the body through which life energy, or qi, flows. Acupressure, thus, involves placing pressure on these meridian points in order to bring about better balance, circulation of fluids like blood and lymph, and metabolic energies in the body.
Critics refer to meridian points as pseudoscientific, though a 2006 study on acupressure stated that it helped reduce lower back pain. And at times, pressing or massaging certain pressure points on the body can help reduce tension headaches — which are caused by stress-induced muscle knots and jaw clenching. For example, rubbing your temples, the back of your neck, or even the webbed part in between your thumb and index finger has been shown to be helpful to relieving headache pain.
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