This year has been a tough one, not just for our mental health but our physical health as well. Many of us have forgone some of our favorite holistic treatments —like massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic medicine—in order to reduce our exposure to COVID-19 and protect ourselves and our loved ones; and unfortunately, this has led to a resurgence of many aches, pains, and everyday discomforts.
As a result, many of us have turned to at-home alternatives like the acupressure mat, which has soared in popularity this year in order to stay well. But are acupressure mats really beneficial? And could they actually replace a trip to the acupuncturist? Keep reading to have all your questions answered.
According to Jessie Lucking , a health coach at Parsley Health in New York City, “Acupressure is built upon the same ideas as acupuncture .” Essentially, it’s a complementary therapy believed to stimulate the central nervous system (CNS). According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupressure is designed to target different points along the meridian lines, or energy pathways, of the body. “It’s all about eliminating blockages in our neuro-vascular pathways—which is where our nervous system and cardiovascular systems meet,” she explains. In TCM, this is believed to help restore the flow of ‘qi’ or life-force energy throughout the body.
An acupressure mat takes the form of a highly textured mat that you sit or lie down on; when you do, the points on the mat put pressure on your body and may stimulate the CNS without requiring a trip to a practitioner. If this sounds painful, it’s not, it’s actually deeply relaxing, like getting a good massage. According to Lucking, any slight discomfort is actually beneficial, because it can increase blood flow and circulation and release chemicals called endorphins.
When your body senses pain from the mat, your brain releases these endorphin chemicals , which are essentially the body’s natural opioids. Those then interact with opioid receptors in your brain to reduce the perception of pain. This can help reduce pain from many chronic conditions and improve your overall sense of well-being —sort of like getting a post-exercise “high” without the actual exercise. As Dr. Shari Auth, DACM, LAC, Co-Founder & Chief Healing Office at WTHN , an acupuncture studio in New York City, says: “After your session, don’t be surprised if you feel better in ways you never expected; we call this the acu-high.”
Acupressure mats have become popular this year for many reasons. As Lucking explains, “Acupressure can sometimes help with nausea during pregnancy and chemotherapy, and people have used it for pain in labor as well as for fatigue , fibromyalgia, insomnia , anxiety and depression, and chronic pain in the neck and back.” For example, one study showed that acupressure mats were a helpful therapy for neck and lower back pain; another study concluded that these mats have beneficial effects on the nervous system and measures of stress, including self-rated relaxation, blood pressure, heart rate variability, and skin temperature.
These benefits most likely have to do with those endorphin chemicals—which are also stimulated by activities like exercise, eating, and sex—mentioned above. According to Lucking, the benefits of increased endorphins include:
So although there’s very little research on acupressure mats, given what we know about the benefits of endorphins, it’s possible that the benefits of acupressure mats are similar to the benefits of increased levels of endorphins, though more research is needed.
Acupressure mats are an amazing tool, especially over the past year when other holistic options have been limited. That said, as Dr. Auth explains, “nothing beats an acupuncture session with a trained professional.” Lucking agrees with her. “Acupressure mats cannot and should not replace acupuncture, since a trained clinical acupuncturist will gather a comprehensive health history and stimulate certain points based upon a specific imbalance within your system,” says Lucking.
In other words, you’re missing out on the clinical expertise with an acupressure mat because it’s not tailored to your specific needs. That said, Lucking and Dr. Auth would recommend an acupressure mat for between acupuncture sessions or alongside other lifestyle and self-care practices. “If you’re concerned about COVID exposure an acupressure mat is a great option,” says Dr. Auth. “I have one and I use it all the time; it’s a wonderful and inexpensive tool to have at home,” says Lucking.
According to Lucking, another great reason to try an acupressure mat is if you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or pain that prevents you from feeling up to working out. Some research has shown that low levels of endorphins could be tied to certain health conditions, like depression , fibromyalgia , and chronic headaches . A deficiency in endorphins seems to affect not just your pain but also your mood and ability to handle stress.
So while no one tool will solve all your problems—the Parsley Health model believes in all aspects of a healthy lifestyle, including sleep, movement, and finding joy—“an acupressure mat is a wonderful option for getting endorphins going for someone who cannot currently participate in exercise or is feeling unmotivated due to depression or other ongoing stressors,” says Lucking.
You should not use an acupressure mat if you are pregnant, using blood pressure medication, have a skin infection or open wounds, or a condition like eczema where the skin may be inflamed or irritated, advises Lucking.
If the above was enough to get you to add an acupressure mat to your cart, all you need now is to know how to use it. Dr. Auth loves using her acupressure mat first thing in the morning. “You can wake up and stand on the mat barefoot—there are a ton of nerve endings in the feet—to energize yourself and wake up ,” she says. She also recommends using the mat at the end of the day: Lie down on your stomach and do some deep breathing into the belly to wind down. “This is great for organs and the digestive system.”
For beginners, Lucking recommends the following steps:
According to Dr. Auth, you might notice your body resisting the pressure at first, but breathing deeply and focusing on relaxing your body can help you sink into the experience. “As circulation increases, you may notice a warming and tingling sensation.” It’s also common to spontaneously doze off while you’re on the mat, something Dr. Auth and her team call an “acu-nap.”
The WTHN acupressure mat and neck pillow comes with a booklet that explains the basics, but Dr. Auth says you can get creative with it. “I’ve put it on my seat during long car rides and even used it on my feet while I work—I find that there are so many possibilities with it,” she says.
At the end of the day, an acupressure mat isn’t a replacement for clinician-run acupuncture or acupressure session or as the only treatment for a medical condition, but it’s a great at-home therapy to complement a holistic health plan and stimulate endorphins and optimize wellness .
Gretchen Lidicker is a writer, researcher, and author of the book CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide To Hemp-Derived Health & Wellness. She has a masters degree in physiology and complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University and is the former health editor at mindbodygreen. She's been featured in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Forbes, SELF, The Times, Huffington Post, and Travel + Leisure.