Acupuncture is a collection of procedures involving penetration of the skin with needles in order to stimulate certain points on the body. In its classical form it is a characteristic component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and one of the oldest healing practices in the world.
One of the most wide-spread practices to relieve pain is applying pressure to a dime-sized spot located between the thumb and forefinger. Acupuncturists say this exercise can calm anxiety and pain, particularly headaches and dental pain. They treat this spot, called hegu, with needles, but there is a small device that can put pressure on it as well.
Of the more than 300 Chinese acupuncture points, hegu in clinical practice seems to be one of the most useful—particularly for pain relief, doctors say. Hegu hasn't been sufficiently studied to prove conclusively it alleviates pain, but one well-designed study found it blunted the worst pain experienced during a medical procedure.
It isn't known exactly how hegu works, says John C. Reed, director of inpatient services at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, U.S. A recent human study found treating it with acupuncture needles increases blood flow to the face, an area where acupuncturists say it is likely to relieve pain. Other research suggests hegu may work by stimulating endorphins, proteins that are natural pain relievers, he adds.
A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, examined the effect of pressing on the hegu point in cancer patients undergoing a procedure called bone-marrow aspiration, which can cause excruciating pain. The study found no difference in average pain levels in patients treated with pressure applied with a device on the hegu point to the same amount of pressure on a point a couple inches away on the top of the hand, which has no known benefit. But it did find that the proportion of patients with severe pain decreased in the hegu group. That suggests that hegu, pronounced her-goo in Mandarin Chinese, "takes the edge" off the worst pain, says study author Ting Bao, an oncologist and medical acupuncturist at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore.
Hegu is generally used by acupuncturists as part of a customized program that includes a variety of other acupuncture points, says Meredith St. John, academic dean of the New England School of Acupuncture, in Newton, Mass. For example, the points to treat a patient for anxiety would be different than those for treating someone with menstrual pain — but hegu would likely be a common denominator in both treatments, she adds.
To manipulate your own hegu point, acupuncturists say to put a thumb on top of the fleshy part between the thumb and forefinger of the opposite hand. Place your forefinger on the other side of the hand and press hard. If you're doing it right, it will hurt, Dr. Bao adds.
A minute or two may be enough, or you may need to try for longer—but benefits will start to decrease after about 20 to 40 minutes of steady pressure, Dr. Reed says. If you get no relief from pressing one hand, try the other one, acupuncturists add.
Pressing on hegu is generally safe, however, acupuncturists say pregnant women should avoid it. Traditional Chinese medicine texts say manipulating the point can induce labor.