Complimentary Medicine, Health, Pain

Acupressure Mats: Torture Devices, Pain Relievers, or Both?

Acupuncture has been one of my go-to treatments for chronic pain for a good six or seven years, but it doesn’t come cheap. Even with insurance, it adds up to have a treatment on a regular basis (and don’t even get me started on the expense of massages, but I fork over for those too despite the fact my insurance no longer covers them). I have done some trigger point work on myself, but that’s not the easiest thing and I only found it minimally effective, which I’m sure has something to do with my skill level, my inability to reach certain key points related to my areas of pain, and maybe something to do with only being able to stimulate a point at a time. As my pain levels have increased as my arthritic conditions progress, self trigger point work has become even less effective. So what to do?

Thanks to nagging SI and related nerve and muscle pain, as well as my ability to sit upright without significant consequences dwindling down to a few minutes, I finally broke down and got an acupressure mat and pillow set. Acupressure mats contain thousands of tiny plastic nubs that you lie or sit on. I heard about them at least three years ago but have always resisted because they look a lot like a torture device. They use the same principle as those beds of nails yogis lie on, and I’ve been freaked out about those since I was a kid. Reviews calling them torture devices didn’t help, although those reviews almost always say that after seconds or minutes, the fiery pains of hell recede and muscles melt. There is also very limited scientific research on acupressure mats.

After almost two weeks of using the mat daily, I can definitely say that it helps quite a bit. After the first session, I felt some relief. Sitting became easier and the constant aches dialed back. With subsequent treatments, which have become longer, I find the relief lasts for longer periods of time, and as long as I keep up with it, the relief lasts most of the day as long as I don’t try to increase my overall activity level. In the last few days, I’ve noticed an increase in my hip range of motion and leg muscle flexibility.

So does it hurt?

Yes. Is it the fiery pits of hell? Depends on the part of the body I’m treating. Lying on my back causes moderate discomfort but nothing like the pain of a flare up. At the point of my SI joint there is increased discomfort but I wouldn’t call it terrible. The reported melting of muscles and decrease of sensation is a no go for me. I feel the same amount of discomfort the whole time, but it does get easier to ignore. Meditating while using the mat and pillow is great practice. I find anywhere from 25 to 35 minutes on my back and neck to be adequate. I do set a timer but my body almost always lets me know when its had enough.

Photo by Isabella and Louisa Fischer on Unsplash

Getting on and off the mat is a bit tricky. Because the plastic nubs are sharp, you don’t want to rub your skin along them. I lie in bed, giving myself enough edge room to lie on my side and roll on and off the mat. The part I find most uncomfortable is getting up. It feels like the plastic adheres to my skin akin to when your bare skin is on the surface of a plastic chair in the summer. It is recommended to use the mat on a hard surface like the floor but that is unlikely to be a viable option for me unless a miracle occurs.

Using the pillow on my feet and neck was even less uncomfortable. My legs are much more sensitive but I can tolerate five minutes on my quads and ten or so on my hamstrings and calves. I tried doing my outer thigh and was close to crying at the level of pain and only made it about 90 seconds. I plan to, at some point when I work up the courage, to try that area again with a thin sheet over the mat to dull the sensation a bit—a tip I read about in reviews.

Bottom line

For the approximately $20 I paid, this little device is well worth it. I opted not to pay extra to get a set with a custom carrying tote. The discomfort of using the mat and pillow is nothing compared to getting some relief from my chronic pain and being able to sit for longer periods of time. Granted, I still spend most of my day in a prone position, but being able to eat a meal or visit with a friend without paying a pain tax for hours or days is downright awesome.

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