I’ve been in pain since 2003, the year I went to college and became semipermanently fixed in front of a computer. It began as a dull ache in my left shoulder blade, where it sometimes flared into the scalene muscles along the side of my neck. By my senior year, I started to suffer migraines, for which my doctor prescribed muscle relaxants and sick days. The cause of my misery remained a mystery until almost a decade later, when I was finally diagnosed with mild scoliosis—a slight bend at my shoulder blades throws my neck out of alignment, which is exacerbated by the ergonomics of keyboards and monitors.
I soon began a regimen of chiropractic care, acupuncture, yoga, and physical therapy that’s kept me blessedly migraine-free. Still, nothing could fully ease the damned ache in my shoulder blade. Targeted adjustments, elbows, needles, and electrotherapy abated the pain for a day or two at most. Then it was back, wearing away at me until my next appointment, which was sometimes weeks away. I needed an at-home solution, something I could turn to whenever the gnawing made me snap at my husband or lose patience with coworkers.
Last summer, while helping my friend move, I noticed her pack a tiny mattress and bolster pillow studded with spiky plastic medallions. “It’s an acupressure mat,” she explained as she jammed it between boxes in the back seat of her car. “It’s great for my neck. You need one.” I placed an order—for the ProsourceFit Acupressure mat and pillow set ($20)—that same day. Now this torturous-looking device is my go-to tool for relieving pain and relaxing stubbornly tight muscles.
Acupressure is the same idea as acupuncture but without the needles: in traditional Chinese medicine, activating specific points on the body (in this case with sharp pressure) is thought to fix pain and illness by unblocking the flow of energy. Physiologically, this explanation focuses on the nervous system, which delivers the electrical signals that control our muscles and physical functions. A trained acupuncture practitioner will target specific points to help relieve issues like back pain, headaches, and nausea.
With an acupressure mat, you get acupressure, sans precision. Each mat goes for a blitzkrieg-like concentration—my model has 7,992 spikes, each one-eighth inch long. I’m not sure what points I’m hitting every time I recline on its stabby array, but with a few minutes of wiggling and microadjustments, I never fail to find something that feels good.
And it really does feel good—once you get used to it. Immediately after lying down, the sensation is best described as fiery, with a smattering of yikes. I give it another half a minute as my body settles in; what a great opportunity to practice breathing through the discomfort! Soon enough, most of the fire recedes into a gentle buzzing warmth as blood flow increases. A few agonized spots will remain, and you can choose to embrace them as needy for attention or politely maneuver into something more comfortable. (I inevitably choose the latter.) Around this time, I tend to notice that I’m craving a little more sensation in some places: the rotator cuff, my lower back, and the scalenes in the neck, all tight areas I find difficult to ease with self-massage and stretching. Then I settle in, sometimes to the point of falling into a Savasana-like snooze—and I’m someone who never sleeps during Savasana. The company recommends that beginners stay on the mat for up to 20 minutes to avoid taxing the body, but I arise after ten. (Those with poor circulation or thin skin should avoid using a mat before consulting with a doctor, though.)
Has the mat cured my ache for good? No, but with one or two consecutive daily uses, I feel more mobile and free of discomfort for a few days—sometimes until my next marathon computer session. And that’s fine. Unlike a physical therapist, it’s available any time I’m hurting.