Acupressure mats

Tuesday, November 06, 2018
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What is all the fuss about?

We’ve all seen them being advertised – the latest health craze, Acupressure mats. Very popular in Scandinavia apparently…. The idea is to lie on one, bare-skinned, on your back (first time users are recommended to use a thin sheet to help get used to the spikes), or stand on them with bare feet, and try to relax. All the while feeling like you are lying on a bed of nails! For anyone who’s already tried it, you’ll remember the feeling of your back feeling like it is on fire. Research varies for the amount of time you are supposed to lie on your mat for. Between 5 minutes for beginners, to 30 minutes if you can tolerate it. All with the aim to encourage relaxation, ease muscle tension, help promote good sleep and to allegedly relieve headaches, neck and back pain. But does it really work? What is all the fuss about?

Acupressure mats have many different names, but essentially this term used to describe a spongy mat, covered with 1000+ non-penetrating plastic spikes on (not needles, like used for traditional acupuncture). And where as a lot of people think that these mats work by putting pressure of specific ‘acupressure’ points, or meridians (the body’s natural energy channels), they actually have a much more interesting effect. For the record, acupressure points are actually very specific, and involve very precise placing of pressure around the body along energy channels / nerve pathways.

How it works - thinking cap ‘on’

To understand exactly how the Acupressure mats work, you will need to understand how pain is generated in the first place. Here is the science bit….

The brain is warned about pain (and other stimulae, e.g. hot / cold etc) by many different ‘sensory’ nerves. These sensory nerves are spread throughout the skin, muscles, and other structures called connective tissues (to name a few). Pain messages go from the skin / muscles etc to the spinal cord, and then up to the brain.

Did you know that an itch is actually a pain? The sensation of the tickle/itch stimulates the same nerves which identify pain, however, they aren’t quite enough to register in the brain as a pain. They sit below the ‘pain threshold’ (see diagram). Do a little experiment. Use your thumb to gently rub the skin of your forearm – it should tickle if you are gentle enough. Now put on more pressure and eventually instead of tickling it will feel like a pressure à pain or a scratch. You have stimulated the same nerve endings, but pushing it form just being a sensation of something, to being registered as a pain.

Usually, e.g. if we whack our elbow, the pain lasts for a short time and goes away. Sometimes, if the thing causing the pain is prolonged, the pain receptors continue to be stimulated (e.g. with chronic pain) – this could be a repetitive strain injury, or sitting at a desk too long, bad posture etc. But what happens in these cases is that, because there is more continuous stimulation, the amount of stimulation required to meet the ‘pain threshold’ is lower. And in some cases, the actual threshold for pain itself can become lower. So not only does it take less to cause the pain, the point where the brain registers this from tickle to pain, is lower too. Double whammy.

With continuous pain, the spinal cord that receives the nerve’s signal changes – like it expects the signal to always be there. So the area usually allocated to receive that part of the signal gets bigger and bigger, and the brain becomes more and more aware that there is pain at this point.

Luckily, the types of nerves carrying this pain signal are small and quick. The acupressure mat works by overwhelming the brain with thousands and thousands of signals of thicker, bigger nerves. Imagine the original pain sensation is part of an orchestra – the triangle. Small but distinctive. When you lie on the acupressure mat, it is like the brain is listening to the whole orchestra – it drowns out the triangle, and the brain can hardly hear it.

(Science buffs – you will know this better as the pain gate theory).

The pain provided by the acupressure mat provides a different type of stimulation. Over time, the original pain (the triangle) is registered by the brain as ‘bad’. (Bad usually = damage) But the new pain, such a bombardment of sensation, is new. It dampens the triangle, in a different way. It alters the brain’s awareness of this stimulation, and because you lie on the mat for anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes, then brain learns that it is not a bad ‘danger’ pain.

What does the research say?

A small study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine done in 2011, found that people were able to "subjectively relax" once they got used to the initial pain of lying on the mat.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

Another study in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine, looked at whether using the acupressure mats for two weeks would help people with chronic back pain. Of the 91 participants, there was found to be a significant decrease in pain immediately after using the mat, and after 2 weeks of using them, perceived disability was also significantly reduced. Physical functioning and vitality reportedly also improved, and the participants reported using less medication.

**It is worth mentioning here, that 8 of the 91 participants reported the mat being too painful to continue using – so it definitely isn’t for everyone!**

https://www.sciencedirect.com/

Participants in the third study we looked at experienced 30% reduction in neck pain after using the acupressure mat daily for 2 weeks. Low back pain was also reported to have eased in 36% of participants. They also highlighted that the acupressure mat was easy and safe to use, and a great tool to administer self-care at home.

Link https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

Are you ready to make up your own mind?

We have one at the clinic if you’d like to come and have a feel or a try. Pop in, and come and see for yourself.

If you choose to use one, we recommend starting off for 5 minutes or less, and putting a thin sheet / wearing a T-shirt until your back gets used to the spikes for the first few times. You will need to judge for yourself as to whether or not it eases your ailments. Be aware that you will feel your back heat up and go red. Plus there might be ‘pin cushion’ effect - with the spikes leaving a temporary mark (due to pressure) on your back.

 

 



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