Acupressure mats are currently the hype. A brand recently asked me to try their mat, and some of you asked my opinion about their effectiveness, so I dived in the experience: try one.
First of all, what is an acupressure mat?
It’s a mattress with spikes on its surface.
The concept is inspired by the principle of acupuncture and acupressure, two branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM): When lying down on the mat, the spikes act as needles and / or the body weight act as pressure and stimulate the acuponcture points on the back. The argument displayed by manufacturers and retailers is that an acupressure mat session would have a therapeutic effect similar to that of an actual acupressure session. The spikes replace the needles or hands of the practitioner.
What does it look like?
Some mats can be rolled as yoga mats, others fold in half like a beach mat. Some have handles or a bag for easy carrying, others don’t.
The mat is made of plastic, or foam – memory or simple – or coconut fiber, covered with fabric (linen, cotton, cotton cloth).
The spikes are arranged in groups (“flowers”), of either plastic nails (these mattresses are called ‘bed of nails’), or of blunt spikes. There are 5,000 to 9,000 nails, depending on the mat.
What is it for?
According to the manufacturers and distributors websites, the instructions in my hands and the many articles found in blogs (many of which use the exact same words…), the acupressure mat is effective for 1) relaxation, 2) the prevention and treatment of diseases and dysfunctions.
Here’s what can be read about the likely effects:
Relaxation / Stress management:
- Relaxes tense muscles
- Reduces stress and improves all dysfunctions associated with elevated cortisol levels: insomnia, excess weight, low mood, weak immune system.
Disease / dysfunction:
- Prevents, reduces and eliminates pain Removes inflammation and joint pain
- Increases joints flexibility / relieves joint stiffness
- Eliminates muscle cramps
- Relieves backache
- Relieves sciatica
- Increases energy, fights against fatigue
- Alleviates migraine, digestive problems, period pains, depression
Do acupressure mats work?
Regarding the therapeutic effects based on acupressure, I do not need to test a mat to observe that the references to acupressure are largely overestimated. Here is why:
• The spikes, being distributed over the entire mat, stimulate acupoints randomly. Depending on your body size, morphology, and position on the mat, the nails reach any of your back spots. Even if you had a custom made mat with nail placed exactly as your acupressure points are, it is impossible to lie down every session in the exact position to the millimeter, which would ensure contact between the nails and your points.
• The human body doesn’t have acupressure points all over the back. Acupressure points in the back are mainly located on both sides along the spine (the Bladder meridian). Having nails all over the mat gives an impression of quantity and hence efficiency, but many of them are not in contact with any acupressure point.
• Through the energy meridians, acupressure/acupuncture practitioners work on some points for some ailments that are not located in the same place. For example, a point to detoxify the liver is located between the big toe and the second toe… It is not because you stimulate the points on your back that you specifically cure back pain. On the contrary: the complex theory behind TCM (and my experience as a practitioner with hundreds of patients confirms it) shows that about 80% of back problems are rooted in… the belly! Stating that the spikes are “perfectly spaced and located” is unfounded.
To summarize, I believe that drawing marketing claims from TCM and acupressure is fallacious. Can an acupressure mat cure osteoarthritis and back pain? My answer is clearly and firmly NO.
However, common sense suggests that it cannot hurt to lie on a mat for 10 minutes, and spikes necessarily stimulate something (blood flow, muscles, some acupressure points in the process), that is why I decided to try: I wanted to test the well being effect of those mats. And to confirm or disconfirm by experience my theoretical observations above.
My acupressure mat session
I tested a memory foam mat covered with cotton canvas, with nails.
Given the nature of my conclusions I will not mention the brand of that mat (which by the way is of very good quality and well crafted). Moreover, my point is generic and not linked to a brand.
My first comment while unfolding the mat was that it is really small! It measures 40cm by 70cm ( unfolded) = 1’3″ x 2’4″. A quick Internet search shows that it is a common size. This size is just enough for me (5’2” / 1m58 – 110lb / 48kg), how can a mat that size fit a large person, or even just a tall one?
The nails are very hard and sharp. Running my fingers over them, my whole body tenses to the thought of lying down on them. Especially as the manual recommends to lie down bare skin. How awful. And how incongruous: working on bare skin doesn’t bring anything to the technique, on the contrary. Shiatsu sessions are received with clothes on.
So I keep my t-shirt, and think of a way to lie down without scratching or hurting myself. The only way, it seems, is to slowly unroll the spine (like in yoga, Pilates or gym exercises). Difficult to do for someone who happens to have… back problems. Or flexibility or general fitness issues.
Once on the mat, I immediately feel discomfort because the nails jab the spine. Acupressure never stimulate the spine. There’s nothing there to work on, and the area is risky to work on.
My sacrum is on the floor and my back on the mat, and the position generates tension in my lower back. When you have back problems, this position is really one to avoid. I would suggest resting the legs on a pillow under the knees. The alternative is to lay the sacrum on the mat, but that involves sitting on the mat before lying down, i.e. buttocks on the nails, ouch.
So I try to adjust my position to reduce the discomfort, but I give up in seconds: any movement on this bed of nails is torture!
Nevertheless, I try to let go despite the discomfort. I close my eyes and take deep breaths. After a few minutes a feeling of well-being appears.
Then I feel tension spots localized in my belly. That feeling is always been in my case a symptom that my vital energy is being stirred: the flow pounds in the spots that are tensed by stress (in my case: the belly).
Although the instructions manual recommends a 20min session, after 10 minutes I still intensely feel the nails and have no desire to stay on the mat. The pain they cause is not worth the relative calm they generate.
So I try to sit up up, and it’s even harder to get up without getting hurt than to lie down, since now my back is bruised by the spikes. The ideal way to sit up would be at once, which requires a strong six-pack.
Once standing up I feel the same symptoms as after an energy work session (shiatsu, acupuncture, Thai massage): a little dizzy and I feel bigger, or rather my aura feels larger. However I did not feel cold water flowing under my skin (which is how I feel the energy flow along my meridians).
An hour later, I realize that I still feel the nails on my skin. I rush to a mirror and discover that my back is covered with red spots and small bumps. Especially under the shoulder blades, where my body weight was the heaviest (because of the awkward position). Contrary to what is advertised, the body weight is not equally spread on the mat.
That night my sleep has been deeper and more restful than usual.
However, the next morning the red spots and bumps had spread all over my back, they felt itchy, and this condition lasted until the evening, i.e. 24 hours after the session! (Photos on request). The notice indicates that it is normal to feel tingling and develop redness after a session. Maybe a little, but to that extent probably not, especially not the itching. It seems that despite the presence of fabric between the nails and my skin (my t-shirt) small veins were splintered. In what condition would my skin be, had I done the session bare skin as advised?
The next day I did not have the heart to try again. Lying on a nails bed did not appeal to me at all. So much for the ‘blissful moment’.
Creds checking out
So I went back online to further explore the origin of those mats, and check the labels and other references out.
To cut a long story short, let’s just say those small prints sum it all up: “None of the statements have been evaluated by any governmental regulatory agency. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Individual results will vary.”
Do not be fooled by striking statements and pseudo-medical logos and wording.
Does it hurt? Yes it does.
Is it acupressure? No it is not. Well, just a little bit, randomly.
Does it cure? No it does not.
Does it calm pain? After about 3 weeks of daily 20min sessions (based on testimonials I received).
Is it relaxing? If you are blessed with a Fakir-like resistance, yes. For normal people I recommend covering the nails with a thick beach towel, or better still to lie down on a hard floor. It provides the same pressure effect on the back (muscles and points) and relaxation. Without the pain and torture.
And for a moment of true relaxation, enjoy the hilarious pictures below, picked from a few websites. Good luck to those who would like to try:
Ouch on the ribs, belly, hips and pelvis!
(not to mention anything protruding )
Mega-ouch on the breast…