In the tradition of Chinese medicine, our well-being is governed by the flow of qi, the vital energy force in the body. When qi flows freely, we feel well. When it gets stuck, we don’t. That’s the philosophical basis of acupuncture and acupressure: Stimulating certain spots on the body helps remove energetic blockages—and that makes us feel better.
According to Chicago-based acupuncturist Mary Jane Neumann, what’s great about acupressure is that you can do it at home on your own with no special training. Still, it’s not quite as straightforward as push here, feel better there. To use acupressure effectively, you have to know where the points are and how to use them.
To help, Neumann created some simple but powerful tools for at-home acupressure work, starting with a pair of rings designed to stimulate Hegu, a well-known pressure point traditionally used to relieve headaches. We asked her for guidance on how to stimulate Hegu with or without the rings—plus advice for other easy-to-access points.
Q&A with Mary Jane Neumann, MS, LAc
What is qi, and how do pressure points stimulate it?
Chinese medicine is rooted in the Taoist philosophy that the human body is a microcosm of the universal macrocosm. And so everything that affects the universe also affects the body, on a smaller scale. Qi is the vital force in the body; it’s the common thread through everything in the universe.
When qi is flowing freely throughout the body, we experience well-being. Acupressure points are specific areas on the body that have a direct effect on the flow of qi. You can think of those points as on-off ramps along an energy highway system. Stimulating them removes energy blockages and helps maintain the free flow of qi throughout the body.
Acupuncturists spend years studying the locations and effects of hundreds of these points on the body. But there are a handful of really powerful points that are widely used and easy to find. Anyone can benefit from acupressure, and anyone can do it. It can be received from a specialist in an office, or it can be done at home by self-stimulation.
How do you use pressure points?
When you press firmly on an acupressure point, you should feel a dull, achy sensation. We call that de qi—it means the arrival of qi—and it signals that the point has activated.
Ideally, you want to press that point for about twenty minutes—about the same amount of time you’d spend stimulating the point during a simple acupuncture treatment.
For example, if you’re looking for the Hegu point, you’ll pinch in that V-shaped junction between your thumb and forefinger. When you give it a good squeeze, you should feel some achiness there. That’s an indication that you’re in the right spot.
What are a few other powerful acupuncture points?
Nei Guan (or Pericardium 6)
Where to find it: Nei Guan is a point on the wrist located between the long tendons on the palm side of the forearm. It’s about two inches from the wrist crease.
When to use it: For occasional feelings of nausea and anxiety. A lot of people will press on that point when they’re traveling or if they’re on a boat, and some pregnant women find it useful as well.
Zu San Li (or Stomach 36)
Where to find it: Zu San Li is located about four fingers below the outer border of the knee.
When to use it: For supporting digestion and energy, this is a really great point to spend some time with every day.
This is an important acupuncture and acupressure point on the ear. The ear, in Chinese medicine, is understood as a microcosm of the whole body, the same way the body is viewed as a microcosm of the universe. There are hundreds of points in the ear itself that relate to every part of the body.
Where to find it: Shen Men is located in the apex of the triangular fossa of the ear. (That’s at the top of the ear’s inner ridge, right between the two branches.)
When to use it: This point is traditionally used to promote calm and support the body’s stress response.
What’s special about the Hegu point?
Hegu, which is located between the thumb and forefinger on the back of the hand, is known as the command point of the head and face—it’s one of the most powerful and commonly used points in the body. It’s mostly used for any condition that’s related to the head, especially the occasional headache. So the idea is that when you feel that beginning of a headache coming on, you would press the Hegu point.
What’s the advantage of using Hegu rings?
A lot of people are already familiar with the Hegu point, even if they don’t know it by name, and many of them will press that point on their hand when head pain sets in. But for lasting benefits, you need to apply pressure on both hands for about twenty minutes.
I created Hegu rings to provide a take-home treatment for my acupuncture patients. They’re easy to use at home or on the go, and they mimic what patients get in my office. If you’re using them to support headache relief, you slip one ring onto each hand to apply pressure at the Hegu point. If you open and close your fingers, you should feel that dull, achy sensation there—the de qi effect. Keep them on for about twenty minutes to get that sustained pressure on both points that’s hard to achieve without a tool.
That said, you shouldn’t use the Hegu point while pregnant. Stimulating Hegu can cause uterine contractions.
What are the four gates, and how do you access them?
In addition to the Hegu point itself, the Hegu rings can also stimulate a point on the feet called Tai Chong, located between the big toe and the second toe. When you combine the Hegu points on the hands with the Tai Chong points on the feet, applying pressure to both, it opens up a circuit called the Four Gates. It’s one of the most significant point combinations in acupressure and acupuncture. Opening the Four Gates powerfully moves qi through the body to remove stagnation and support relaxation. This is a really great combination for the end of a stressful day or if you’re unwinding before bed. I use them when I meditate as well.
Mary Jane Neumann is an acupuncturist and the founder of Hegu. Neumann has a bachelor’s in zoology from Michigan State University, a master’s in basic medical sciences from Wayne State University School of Medicine, and a master’s in acupuncture from Tri-State College of Acupuncture. She formerly taught in the departments of oriental medicine and bioscience at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. She practices in Oak Park, Illinois, focusing on pain management, women’s health, and facial rejuvenation.