It's eastern medicine at its finest: acupressure, or the relieving of ailments through direct pressure on the skin. No needles necessary, this cousin of acupuncture has a following that would impress even AshtonKutcher on Twitter.
You might have tried it yourself: pressure point wristbands to prevent nausea, holding the web of your thumb to stop a pounding headache, even those spiked wooden foot rollers at the Sharper Image--all acupressure instruments in disguise. But would you consider acupressure panties?
This is what researchers at the University of California, San Francisco are working to create--an acupressure undergarment that would decrease menstrual cramps and hopefully better the lives of women who suffer from a condition calleddysmenorrhea, or painful periods.
Studded on the front and back with 17 blue latex rubber balls and wrapped in place by a black stretchy material that connects by bra hooks, the panties, appropriately named "ReliefBriefs," are amusing at first sight. How can someone walk around with several foam balls pushing into their lower abdomen and back and actually be relieved of pain? This however, is what acupressure is based on--direct and constant pressure, and not necessarily in the same location as the pain.
Born out of acupuncture, the eastern practice of inserting tiny needles into the body to relieve pain and other medical ailments, acupressure works by targeting acupoints, or pressure spots that help activate the body's natural healing devices, or so the theory goes.
The limitations of acupressure, and of assessing any validity to a study that involves it, is that its outcomes can be different for every person. Placing pressure balls on the same location of every woman with debilitating cramps may not provide the kind of broad pain coverage as an 800mg dose ofibuprofen . And what about a placebo effect? A woman who has suffered through painful periods for years on end with no relief might be more likely to perceive a change simply because she is doing something proactive for her pain.
So do acupressure panties actually work to relieve painful periods? A prior study from 2002 that this current study is based on says they do. In it, researchers found that the majority of women studied experienced at least a 50-percent drop in the severity of menstrual pain. They also noted that women wearing the pressure panties were more likely to decrease the amount of pain medication they used during their periods.
Downsides to the panties? Researchers found that some women experienced mild skin irritation and a feeling of tightness around the waist and leg bands. Also, because the rubber balls are made from latex, anyone with a latex allergy should not try them.
For conditions such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids or dysmenorrhea in general, acupressure panties could represent a long-awaited non-pharmacologic option for pain management. Price and wearability, two issues that are not yet clear from the current study, will also play a role in the ReliefBrief's popularity.
Taylor, D. et al. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2002. 8: 357-370.