A few weeks ago, Real Housewife of New Jersey Teresa Giudice posted a photo on Instagram of herself, laser-focused while typing at her computer. Giudice was sitting on a black mat with purple circles on it, which she claims "takes care of my body, helping to maintain health and beauty." She compared it to an "amazing massage." While a sponsored celebrity Instagram isn't necessarily the best resource for health advice, the mystery mat she's touting is definitely a thing, and it's called an "acupressure mat."
Also known as an "acupressure needle stimulation pad" or a "bed of nails," acupressure mats are foam mats with thousands of very sharp, short plastic needles. You're supposed to sit, lie, or stand barefoot on the mat for anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes. It sounds like it would feel completely miserable, but fans of the mats swear it feels amazing.
Some acupressure mat brands insist that using the mats can help you sleep, relieve muscle tension, and even reduce stress and anxiety. Others swear that using the mats regularly can cure all sorts of medical ailments, like headaches, high blood pressure, and constipation. Why stop there: The mats can also apparently relieve chronic neck and back pain, reduce the appearance of cellulite, and cure muscle aches. Despite these marketing and anecdotal claims, is there any substantial proof that using an acupressure mat can be beneficial? Well, maybe.
A small 2011 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that people were able to "subjectively relax" once they got used to the initial pain of sitting on the mat. Researchers didn't find any differences in participants' saliva cortisol levels (a marker that's often used to measure a person's stress response) after using the mats, but they did say that lying on the mat was able to illicit a "parasympathetic response." In other words, they seemed to be chilled out. There's not a whole lot you can gain from this one study alone, because there are too many variables that weren't taken into account (such as how stressed participants were before using the mats), and it could always just be a placebo effect.
Another 2016 study in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine looked at whether or not using the mats for two weeks would help people with chronic back pain. Turns out, participants reported that a little bit of pain went away immediately after using the mat, but there weren't any improvements in their back pain overall. Actually, 10% of the people involved in that study had to stop using the mat because it hurt so badly, and one person said it made their skin itch and turn red. That makes sense, because the needles are very sharp and there's not necessarily a technique for safely using the mats (like there is for traditional acupuncture).
Acupuncturists want to make it clear that using an acupressure mat is not the same thing as going to get acupuncture. "The difference between seeing an acupuncturist and using a pressure mat would be like the difference between eating a meal and looking at a picture of a meal," says Justine Lynch, a licensed acupuncturist at Mountain Acupuncture in New York City. If anything, perhaps the mats can "release a bit of Wei qi, or defensive qi," which could relax a person, she says. A critical part of acupuncture is working with an actual human acupuncturist, which you can't replicate with a mat, Lynch says. While acupressure mats might attract a similar crowd as acupuncture, they're not going to do the same things at all.
(That said, although studies suggest that acupuncture can help manage certain pain conditions, there hasn't been enough research to prove that it also helps relieve stress or anything like that.)
So who is an acupressure mat for? It's popular amongst yogis and dancers, some of whom believe that the mats truly are helping their bodies. But we reached out to a number of physical therapists to see if they could confirm that acupressure mats could be good for your muscles, and not one of them said they were familiar with the mats or their benefits. It seems like acupressure mats are not like self-myofascial release or foam rolling, which have actually been proven to help ease tension in sore or overworked muscles.
In truth, if you can endure the pain of sitting on a spiky mat, it's probably not going to kill you. Acupressure mats are definitely not necessary, though, and if you are dealing with a health problem, you're better off talking to your doctor and figuring out a treatment plan that actually works. And if you're trying to relieve stress, there are tons of ways to do that, which don't involve buying and plopping down on a needlepoint mat.