Acupressure Mats: What They Are & How To Use Them
People who suffer from back or neck pain will do a lot of things to find relief—including, it seems, lie on a bed of nails. Covered in tiny, sharp plastic pressure points, acupressure mats are an increasingly popular (albeit somewhat painful) tool for soothing muscle pain and promoting relaxation, like a good massage or acupressure session would.
Here, a physical therapist and acupuncturist explain the anecdotal benefits of acupressure mats (there's not much scientific research on their efficacy) and how to properly use the unique pain relievers.
How acupressure mats work and their benefits.
Acupressure mats, also referred to as Shakti mats, are a relatively new invention inspired by ancient healing modalities. Though the concept of acupressure has been around for thousands of years, this at-home iteration didn't become popular until the early 2000s, with Swedes being some of its earlier adopters. (In 2009, 3,000 people gathered in Stockholm to lie on the mats at once and test out their relaxing properties, setting a Guinness World Record in the process.)
When compared to the million and one pain relievers on the market, the acupressure mat—often accompanied by an acupressure pillow—is relatively straightforward. Its 4,000-plus plastic spikes put pressure on many different parts of the body at once, helping release tension and promote blood flow. They are similar to other self-myofascial release tools, like foam rollers and massage balls, but work on a larger and less targeted scale.
"Unlike acupuncture that uses selective and targeted points to treat pain and diseases, acupressure mats apply pressure on a large surface area," says licensed acupuncturist Snow Xia L.Ac. "[The mats] have a general effect of releasing myofascial and muscular tension and increasing blood circulation."
Erin Weber, P.T., DBT, a physical therapist at Flow Physiotherapy in Brooklyn, adds that her patients also increasingly ask about using these mats for relaxation and stress release. "There's enough pressure on the muscle fibers to release tension but also to really calm down the nervous system," she tells mbg, explaining that the pressure of the mat—like any welcome touch—can release feel-good hormones like serotonin and help activate the body's parasympathetic (rest and digest) response.
Very little research has been done to validate the benefits of acupressure mats, though one 2011 study did reinforce its relaxing benefits on a small trial of 32 people.
While the mats aren't frequently endorsed by many Western doctors or therapists, Weber suspects that more clinicians could start to recommend them once more long-term research has been done on their benefits.
Until then, both she and Xia consider the mats safe to use and potentially very beneficial for easing stress and pain. "If it's something that is noninvasive and can help you reset your nervous system and relax muscle tension, then why not give it a try?" Weber says.
Best practices for using them.
If you're new to acupressure mats, here are some tips for using them in a way that's comfortable and restorative:
- Avoid touching them with bare skin at first: Since their spikes can be sharp, beginners shouldn't lie on these mats with bare skin. Be warned that the mat might feel prickly to the touch too, so keep your hands off of it as you lie down if you can. While it will always feel a little weird, over time you'll get used to the sensation and can have more wiggle room with this rule.
- As you lie down, breathe slowly: Taking slow, deep breaths while on the acupressure mat can amplify its effects: "It helps create a general relaxation and improves blood flow locally to the areas that are restricted—and that also eases tension and pain," says Weber.
- Start slowly at first: "When pairing this with diaphragmatic breathing, you might get a little lightheaded. That's when you would stop and go back to your normal respiratory rate or roll back to your side," Weber says. Start by using the mat for a few minutes at a time, and work your way up from there as you start to feel more comfortable.
- Don't use it for too long: While some acupressure mats are marketed as bed accessories, Xia does not recommend sleeping on them or using them for any longer than 30 minutes. "As these spikes make impressions on the skin, lying on it for a long time might cause bruising or damage to the skin surface," she explains.
Routines to start with.
While lying on your back on the mat is enough to start to release tension in the upper back and shoulder blades, here are a few routines for working out the kinks in different areas of the body:
- For foot pain: Xia's favorite way to use the mat is to stand on it barefoot (or in socks if that's too uncomfortable). "There are over 7,000 nerve endings in each foot, and from a reflexology point of view, various zones reflect various organs. So by stimulating our feet, we are improving circulation in those organs and stimulating the nervous system."
- For lower back tension: Hold both knees close to your chest and rock left and right to stimulate the acupressure points on the lower back.
- For headaches: "A major acupuncture point for headache (GB20) is located on the nape of the neck, so positioning the acupressure pillow at this area can help relieve headaches," says Xia.
Who shouldn't use them?
Weber says to avoid these mats if you have an open wound, as they can cause pain or infection. Those with poor circulation likely won't reap as many benefits from these mats and are better off avoiding them too. "Otherwise," she says, "if you have normal sensation throughout your body and limbs and healthy skin, then it should be OK."
Types of mats.
All acupressure mats are pretty similar. They do, however, come in a few sizes, with most of them clocking in at about 15 inches by 30 inches. They typically cost between $25 to $100-plus. The more spikes that a mat has, the more comfortable (and expensive) it will likely be.
Snow prefers mats that come with a semicircle pillow that can be placed on the nape of your neck to release neck pain and headache. And while they do make portable travel-size mats, Weber says to opt for the full-size ones if you have the space, since they provide a larger area of pressure.
Look into these:
Spoonk Sleep Induction & Back Pain Acupressure Mat
Gaiam Acupressure Mat & Pillow Set
Nayoya Acupressure Mat & Neck Pillow Set
The bottom line.
Lying on an acupressure mat is one way to reap some of the benefits from a massage or acupressure session at home. While the research on them is limited, anecdotal evidence suggests that they can help release pain and stiffness throughout the body and promote relaxation. There are a few ways to use the mats, so play around and find a routine that works for you (safely—these things are sharp!).
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