By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2009, All Rights Reserved
Of all the subjects covered in martial arts schools I'd have to say that, after point sparring, "pressure points" is one of the ones that make me scratch my head the most. The term "pressure point" generally refers to an area of the body where a nerve sits just underneath the skin, and by pressing down on it you can cause sharp and sometimes severe pain. The term is broadened by the western medical community to mean any area of the body where applying direct pressure can result in some type of change within the body. For example, pressing down on an artery to slow bleeding is considered a use of a "pressure point". In Traditional Chinese Medicine the term is broadened even further to include areas where no nerves or arteries exist, but an invisible pathway (called a "meridian") of internal energy (called "chi" in Chinese, "ki" in Japanese, and "bio-energy" in the west) flows throughout the body.
In the west pressure points are pretty much divided into two types, one being points that cause pain and the other being points that cause light headedness or unconsciousness. A martial arts instructor will generally teach forms or sparring and then switch gears by sitting the class down and saying, "if you press here...the guy will scream. But, if you press here...the guy will dance for you", and then that's pretty much it. Most instructors only give instruction in pressure points to that degree, spots on the body that you can press down on and cause people pain.
Some other schools, mainly in the U.S., teach pressure points in a quite elaborate way. They talk about spots like "gallbladder 5" and a "triple warmer" and say that you can simply tap someone "here" and make them pass out, or you can strike them in a certain sequence you can make someone pass out. Unfortunately, if you hit them out of sequence or you're a 1/2 inch off on one of the points then it doesn't work. I know some people are really into this method, but if you think about that it's really a mess.
Thus far I've haven't been to a seminar on that type of pressure point use but I have seen it done on videos and spoken with people who have had first-hand training on it, and while I always try to keep an open mind, when I'm confronted with it the only thing I can think of is "how the hell are you going to pull this off when someone is trying to stab you to death?" If someone really does attack you and you're planning on locating and striking 3 tiny pressure points on his body in a certain order to incapacitate him the only thing I can say is, "good luck". When people are actually moving around and being aggressive you're not going to be able to access these tiny spots. You can find a tiny pressure point on someone's arm during class, but how are you going to find it when the guy's wearing a winter coat? And if you need to find and hit 3 or 4 points in a certain order to knock someone out while they're wearing street clothes and trying to seriously injure or kill you...well...if you can do it then you're the luckiest guy on Earth.
In the orient pressure points are taught a little differently than they are here. In China or Japan pressure points really aren't considered a separate part of your education. During your early stages of training an instructor might throw out a few pain inducing pressure points here and there mainly for fun, or as a possible way to make people comply with you. However, while these points, which are also points used in acupuncture, are very useful for medical purposes, their use for martial art purposes are mainly considered "tricks" or novelties. During the higher levels of training an instructor pretty much says, "here are the areas of the body where striking can cause the most damage...now hit them as hard as you can". The idea that you can gently press on pressure points or strike them lightly and make someone pass out or compels them to completely comply with you is for the most part a horrorably misguided western idea.
I saw a video on the internet awhile back where an old Japanese Kenpo Master was giving a demonstration on pressure points to a class of advanced students. He pointed out a point that causes unconsciousness and then told everyone to stand back because he was going to demonstrate its effects. Now, most people would think that he would gently press on the point or at most gently poke it and the guy would fall to the floor unconscious. I have to admit that is what I was expecting. However, what the old master did was to set his feet, and then he struck the guy so hard I thought he killed him. His partner came off of his feet and flew backward and into the floor. The old master then rushed over to revive him, and sure enough the guy was unconscious. The masters in the orient know very well that this "mamby-pamby" press or strike gently bullshit won't work.
In my classes I do teach pressure points as a separate subject because using pressure points has little use in real self-defense. Most people would say that the temple is a pressure point and the solar plexus is another pressure point but I call them "targets". To me, "targets" are areas of the body that are especially susceptible to impact trauma and I have my students train to hit them as hard as they can. In my class "pressure points" are spots on the body that you can press on and cause people pain. I regard them as sort of parlor tricks. Not really useful in real violence but if you're goofing around with your buddies, or you're in a social situation and you need to send someone a message via pain then they're great.
The idea of being in a violent attack and hunting and pecking for tiny little spots on your attacker's body is ridiculous, but there are some pressure points that are easy to find and do their job quite well. In an effort to simplify the topic of pressure points I'm going to discuss the ones that are most useful, from a purely functional standpoint. I've rated these points from one to eight, with one besting the most useful. The standard I used to rate them was 1.) Accessibility, 2.) Amount of pain resulting, 3.) Ease in locating the point, and 4.) Ease of applying pressure and being able to keep there while the other person tries to get away from you.
Pressure Point #1: The Eyes
Most people don't consider the eyes to be pressure points but I think that they're the best one on the body. If your goal is injury then the eyes are one of the easiest places on the body to injure. If your goal is pain compliance then the eyes are still number one. If you want to make someone stop what they're doing and dance for you then slowly press down on their eye. Just make sure that you use your other hand to hold their head because as soon as you'll do they'll fight rather violently to get away.
I understand that most people don't like the idea of using the eyes as pressure points and that is fine, but you still have to admit that functionally they do the job very well. They are large so they are easy to find. There are two of them so if you miss one you can come back and get the other. They are filled with nerves so applying pressure results in a great deal of pain. Also, the body goes to great lengths to protect them so by controlling the eyes you can take control of the entire body.
If I had someone standing in front of me and I wanted to drop them to their knees in pain and control them with a pressure point my first thought would be a thumb to the eye.
Pressure Point #2: The Testicles
Like the eyes, the testicles are usually easy to find and filled with very sensitive nerves. If you're goal is to press on something and force compliance through pain then a testicle is your good buddy. However, I do prefer the eyes over the testicles since the eyes are usually much easier to get at, after all the eyes are at eye level and not covered by denim. Generally if you can't get at the eyes then you can get at the groin, and if you can't get at the groin then you can get at the eyes.
The way to use the testicles as pressure points is to simply push your hand into the other person's groin and make a tight fist. You should be able to feel the testicles in your hand but if you aren't sure that you've got them just check to see if the other person is trying to curl into the fetal position.
You do need to be very careful with the testicles because you can cause them to rupture which would move the situation from pain compliance to actual injury. If you're goal is just pain compliance then grab them and squeeze gently, you only need a little pressure, and gauge the pressure needed on the other person's reaction.
Pressure Point #3: The Ribs
A person's ribs, especially the lower ones, are very vulnerable and there are plenty of nerves. If someone is grabbing you and you want to make them jump back and let go, just dig your fingers into their ribs. The reason that I like the ribs is because they're not something you have to hunt and peck for. They are large areas on the body and very easy to locate and get to, and when you dig your fingers into them people immediately try to get away.
There are four ways I teach people to press on the ribs. First is with the tip of your thumb. You simply make a tight fist and press the pad of your thumb against the side of the index finger, then dig the tip of the thumb in the ribs and try to push it right between two of them in a twisting motion. The second is with a knuckle. To do this you make a tight fist but put the knuckle of your index finger out a little bit and then press on the ribs in the same way. Third is using four knuckles instead of just one. You make a tight fist and use all four knuckles to dig and twist into the ribs.
Pressure Point #4: The Saphenous Nerve
The saphenous nerve runs down the inside of the leg and is very sensitive. The best way to use it is to reach between their legs, place your hand on their upper thigh, and use an eagle claw to grab as much meat as you can. If you put your hand on your own thigh and then firmly grab a big handful you'll realize how painful this is. This, as well as the groin, is great points to use when someone grabs you from behind.
I've rated this "point" after the ribs simply because the ribs are usually easier to get to then the thighs.
Pressure Point #5: The Jugular Notch
The Jugular Notch is the tender hollow area where your lower windpipe meets your sternum. It is very sensitive and there are two ways to utilize this as a pressure point. First, you can push anyone away from you by simply inserting two fingers there and pushing as hard as you can. This a great move to show young girls because with this a small female can push any size guy off of her.
The second way to use the jugular notch as a pressure point is to insert two fingers into it and then press in and down towards the ground. This variation is more of a controlling maneuver than the first. I like to grab the back of their head with my left hand to make sure they can't go anywhere and use my right to dig down into their jugular notch. It is a great way to make someone sit down.
Pressure Point #6: The Side of the Neck
The side of the neck is very easy to get to and there are a lot of nerves there which makes it very easy to get pain compliance. You simply place your thumb on the side of the neck, either side, a few inches down from the bottom of the ear and press. It can be anywhere in that area, it doesn't have to be that exact spot.
This is a great move for the law enforcement community to use when trying to cuff a resisting suspect. Instead of 4 officers trying to hold the person down, or use other means, they can apply force of the side of the person's neck and they will quickly become compliant. If they don't become compliant because of the pain then they'll soon become lightheaded and lose their strength enabling the officers to cuff them with little problem.
Pressure Point #7: Under the Nose
While some points are more painful for some people than others, this point is horrorable for pretty much everyone. This point is located between the bottom of the nose and top of the upper lip. To use this point you place the side of your index finger underneath their nose and then press in and up. It only takes a few seconds to make the eyes water profusely. Another version for when someone is standing in front of you is to grab the back of their head with your left hand and place the side of your right hand under their nose and use the side of your hand to apply pressure.
Pressure Point #8: The Back of the Arm
On the back of the arm just below the armpit there is a large bundle of nerves that are very sensitive. By grabbing the back of the arm with an eagle claw you can cause a lot of pain. However, it is often not too hard for them to be able to pull their arm away from you and out of your grasp.
While I teach using a lot of different areas of the body for striking, these eight areas are the only ones I teach to be used as pressure points. There are a few other points that are widely taught but I chose not to include them for functionality reasons. While these points, and others, do create a lot of pain when force is applied, they require you to look for them, which can make it almost impossible to find them during a violent altercation, and are quite small. For a pressure point to be really useful during a violent altercation it should be a fairly large area and not some tiny little spot. If the point is some tiny little spot then you won't have sufficient control over that area and someone can jerk away from you and suddenly your finger has moved 1/2 an inch and you've lost the spot. The spots discussed above are bigger areas (the ribs, back of arm, under the nose) instead of tiny spots.
Here are my four "honorable mentions" in no particular order.
Honorable Mention #1: Behind the Ear
This is a very popular pressure point. Right behind the bottom of the ear there is a hollow spot between the jaw and the neck where applying pressure can result in quite a bit of pain. I say "can result" because I know many people who are so receptive to this point that they almost live in fear of it, and I know many people don't find this very painful at all. To best stimulate this point insert the tip of your thumb in the hollow and press down hard while you twist your hand back and forth.
Honorable Mention #2: Under the jaw
If you feel underneath the jaw you'll find that the edges of the jaw are made of bone but everything in between them is soft tissue. To find the pressure point move up the jaw bone about half way between the tip of the jaw and the hinge where it connects to the skull. Put two fingers, or better yet the tip of your thumb, on that spot and then push it up under the bone into the soft tissue of the jaw's underbelly. This point exists on both sides of the jaw and most people find this incredibly painful.
The reason that I put this as an "honorable mention" and did not list it under the points that I teach is because, given it's location, there are just other points that are easier to get to and use. You can generally find this point easily and use it to cause severe pain but if someone jerks away from you, you generally lose the spot.
Honorable Mention #3: Finger nails
The finger nails are another point that are horrorably painful and easy to find, but it is very easy for someone to pull away from you and cause you to lose your pressure point. To use the finger nail, or toe nail, as a pressure point you grab a hold of the finger and press down on the top of the nail with the tip of your thumb. You want to press down on the very bottom of the nail right next to the cuticle for maximum pain.
Honorable Mention #4: Median nerve
The median nerve is a point that causes a lot of pain in pretty much everyone but it can be hard to find, especially on someone who does not have well defined arms. To find the median nerve point look at your arm while holding your palm towards the floor. Bend your arm slightly and look at the crease created in your elbow. Place the thumb of your other hand on the edge of the crease and move your thumb down towards the hand about a 1/2 an inch and the towards you about an 1/8 of an inch. The tip of your thumb should be right on the median nerve. You might have to press down and move it around slightly to find it's exact spot. Again this point is very painful but it can be hard to find (especially if the individual is wearing long sleeves or a thick coat) and they can usually pull away from you rather easily. This is a point used quite a bit in Aikido.
Honorable Mention #5: The Love Handles
There are several nerves in love handles that exist very close to the skin that can be easily used to cause pain, regardless of how much body fat a person has.
To use the hand handles as a pressure point, lay your hand flatly on their love handle, between their hips and their ribs. Think of imitating a lobster’s claws and squeeze the hand and try to touch the tips of your four fingers to your thumb.