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July 1, 2013

BehindTheMedspeak: "Can you relieve pain with a squeeze to the hand?


Laura Johannes, writing in the June 24 Wall Street Journal, brought news of a $32.99 plastic clip that allegedly relieves pain by applying constant pressure to the hegu spot.

Regardless of whether or not it works, the reason it's worth featuring here is that even if it doesn't, you're no worse off.

OK, you're $33 lighter in the wallet, but big whoop: you haven't hurt yourself.

To me that's the dividing line when it comes to medical interventions: if they might make you better but won't make you worse, well, what's wrong with trying them?

It's like buying a lottery ticket: As the great Terry-Thomas remarked, "You know you won't win — but you might!"


Below, excerpts from the WSJ piece.


The Claim: Applying pressure to a dime-sized spot located between the thumb and forefinger can calm anxiety and pain, particularly headaches and dental pain. Acupuncturists treat this spot, called hegu, with needles, but a small device can put pressure on it as well.

The Verdict: 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. 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.

Aculief Inc. of Carlsbad, California sells a $32.99 clip [pictured below]


that applies constant pressure to the spot. The company says it hasn't done any studies on the clip, but that its customers say it helps headaches and other pain.


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.

July 1, 2013 at 08:01 PM | Permalink


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Primum non nocere.
Placebo effect.

Inherently discriminatory to those who have had hands amputated.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Jul 1, 2013 11:14:42 PM

Depends who's squeezing your hand, and why..

Posted by: Marianne | Jul 1, 2013 10:46:26 PM

I've been doing this for years with my migraines and it does work. It would be fun to try that little contraption tho!

Posted by: Stella | Jul 1, 2013 9:44:52 PM

Another pressure trick I was told by a dental hygienist: making a fist, but putting your thumb inside can keep you from gagging. You have to close your fist tight enough to feel pressure in the part of your palm where it makes contact with your thumb.

Posted by: Andrew | Jul 1, 2013 9:25:35 PM

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