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In hapkido we do a great deal of training with various pressure point techniques. These include pinches that hit a nerve (e.g., on the inside of the leg or on the outside of the elbow) or strikes that are specifically targeted, e.g., to hit the center of the muscle on the outside of the leg.

These work fairly consistently: You can approach a person, apply one of the techniques, and get an anticipated pain or muscular response. The locations are consistent, and if you can find it on one person you can generally hit the same spot on others.

Except when… they don't. It varies by the person, but many people seem to lack at one of the standard set that we hit. It isn't that they are hard to find, they just consistently lack them. We've also found in at least one case it looks like the ones that work or don't run in family lines.

It's well understood that people are different in these regards, but particularly for the more philosophical points it seems odd to see so much variation.

So the question is… why do some people seem to be missing certain points? Studies that might explain it are best if anyone knows of any, but I'll take other explanations.

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Just to confirm, you are asking about vital or physiological points, rather than pressure points that are meridian (acupuncture) based? – slugster Mar 7 '12 at 9:25
Generally the ones that are targeted most frequently map to both, e.g., the one I linked to there is an acupuncture point, but it is also interconnected to a bunch of different nerve tissue. I also flat don't have it on one side. – David H. Clements Mar 7 '12 at 14:58

7 Answers 7

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This has nothing to do with wiring; we are, essentially, all wired the same way (ignoring, of course, the outliers: e.g. people with an improperly developed nervous system [CIPA - Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis]). There are, however, various reasons you might have different effects on different people:

  • Muscle Mass – While this is not a direct inhibitor of reception of pain by any means, the muscles do serve to protect the weaker points on the body (as does the general format of the body itself). Large muscles make it difficult to strike between them into the indentations of the body, or the points at which nerve clusters are exposed. For example, the biceps and triceps serve to buffer somewhat the ability to strike into the nerve clusters on the arm. This is generally the weakest form of resistance, as this sort of definition also accents the location of nerve centers (the indentations between muscles).

  • Hormone Levels – Hormones are the electro-chemical signals of the nervous system. Various factors, such as environment, genetics, diet, etc. can all contribute to increased or decreased hormone levels, some of which are responsible for the neurotransmission of pain. An adrenaline response is a great example of this; elevated hormone levels producing a form of anesthesia.

  • Drug Use – A far more common than realized reason is drug use. Many drugs work by inhibiting or altering the neuro-chemical signals. I don't imply simply PCP and other illicit drugs here, but prescription medications (For example, Lyrica) as well.

  • Neuron Damage – Nerve clusters, like the rest of the body, can be damaged. Repeated injury can "wear out" a nerve, preventing the feeling of pain from that location as a means of self-preservation. Burn victims often suffer intense pain often because of the memory of the pain, their nerves long since destroyed, before drowning with pneumonia. Many people who were particularly clumsy as children (thus falling a great deal) seem to share a distinct resistance at the knees and elbows that may suggest nerve damage occurring in childhood from repeated trauma.

  • Conditioning – Through mental conditioning, we can become more resistant to pain. Whether we call it conditioning, self-hypnosis, or anything else, it boils down to asserting ones will upon their existence. In whatever ways one may do this, they are essentially thinking (consciously or subconsciously) themselves out of pain.

Pressure points are not some mystical, magical tool; they are a difficult concept of inflicting massive amounts of pain when possible. You should not strive to strike or grab or tear at a vital point, but rather train so that all your strikes find these points automatically.

A Note About Use of Pressure Points

"You should be able to hit your opponent's kyusho [vital points] at any time." – Hatsumi Masaaki
"Create your own kyusho" – Hatsumi Masaaki

In Appendix 1 of Valery Momot's Anatomy of Life and Death: Vital Point of Human Body (sic), a series of prints taken from Fujita Seiko's book on Kyushojutsu are reproduced showing the vital points given in various Chinese, Japanese, and Okinawan arts. The placement of the points is varied, sometimes over a relative [scaled] foot in difference between the two points labeled as the same kyusho.

I will admit here and now: I do not believe in Qi meridians. When I was creating my kyusho charts for my training manual, I sat down with that book, my own diagrams, and Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body and found the nerve clusters that corresponded to the points. I stepped through diagrams that I barely understood to find the ways I could recognize the body's weaknesses. I visited the Bodies exhibit in Vegas to sketch and learn anatomy.

It's an error to think that people are different. It's our search for identity that makes us believe we are unique and special. Underneath the skin, we still exhibit the same characteristics, excluding the outliers.

Kyusho are one tool. We can strike, grab, press, pull, and otherwise manipulate these points, and not all manipulations produce the same results. Ultimately though they are simply dense clusters of nervous tissue that are easily exploited; however, our bodies are full of this sort of tissue. Do not rely on solely these points, but instead explore the ways in which the rest of the body can cause horrific pain just as easily.

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Welcome to the scary world of real human anatomy. What you read in an anatomy book is the average location of things - but actual people can have significant variation in specific location.

For example, the sciatic nerve can run over, under, or through the piriformis muscle - it all depends on how your body randomly grows. Likewise, you can have variations in your hip socket angle, which means some people will only be able to have a certain range of motion, regardless of how much they stretch - stretching muscle doesn't matter when your own bone is the barrier.

So, nerves might be deeper, off to the side a bit, if there's been an injury or surgery, these might have been pushed aside and healed to that new location, etc. A person might have more muscle, fat, or scar tissue blocking the usual path to pressure on the nerve. A few people have a couple of small extra muscles in a variety of places.

And that's before we get to the point of "pain is a brain response" and brains are all wired differently.

So, pain based pressure points are a gamble in terms of effect.

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Everyone is different. It is important to realize that things like this is usually ON AVERAGE. Such as 98.6 is the AVERAGE temperature for a human but it doesn't mean someone is necessarily sick if their temperature is off from this.

Everyone has their own tolerance for pain or it may just turn out to not be a painful spot for them. I would expect everyone to have their nerves in more or less the same location but sensitivity will vary. The person could even have built up a tolerance. Haven't you ever seen the video of the monk that gets kicked in the nuts repeatedly without flinching? A person may have had an injury or surgery that desensitized the nerve. Someone could be on drugs. I am sure there are more reasons than I have mentioned here.

Martial arts is about adaptation. What may work on one person may not work on another.

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None of these seem to apply to me for whatever reason, I'm only thirteen but my parents have no Immunity to pressure points and It's been that way all my life. The only successful use of a pressure point used on me was In the webbing between my thumb and Index finger which no one else can use since the person who happened to use It on me was my Uncle Marcus who's a mountain climber and has extremely strong hands, I'm Immune enough to the point of where I have stabbed myself In the spot with a pencil and couldn't feel It. I haven't built up an Immunity though, considering I'm not exceptionally clumsy and the people that have tried pressure points on me normally give up after the first one or two tries which Isn't many people anyway. My Uncle Marcus tried one on my neck and several In my knees, shoulders, and back that didn't work. I take no medication so It's not drugs and I have high pain tolerance to certain Injuries like pricks and cuts or scratches, getting hit or bumping Into something never hurt much either. What's with that?

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While the contribution is definitely appreciated, an anecdote without more does not really supply an answer. This anecdote doesn't even really seem to address the question of "why". – TimothyAWiseman Oct 28 '14 at 22:37

Because pressure points are BS. Which is why "pressure point techniques" only seem to work in the Dojo or at demonstrations. In the real world, adrenalin will cancel out any effect you may expect from striking a pressure point.

For your own safety, aim for things like the floating ribs, the solar plexus, the nose and the chin. If you try performing a five-point-star-exploding-heart technique on someone in a real fight, you'll get laughed at before your opponent hands you your butt.

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Everyone is wired differently. As far as I know, that's as far as we know.

But now you gave me an idea for a book, where people, because of what they need to do, their training, their purpose, end up with bodies that change to fit a particular purpose, and disabling some of their points - removing their worst weaknesses, in effect.

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Small note on @stslavik: Although you're right about the muscle explanation, I'd like to add that bigger muscles sometimes receive more pain themselves. You may receive less pain from anything under them, but the muscles themselves also have nerves attached to them of course.

(@riotburn:) The monk-kicking thing is, according to themselves, thanks due to chi/qi training. They practice channeling/guiding chi in their bodies, and with the nut kicking (similar to e.g. the spear-on-throat) they build up chi in their nut. I cannot confirm whether it's the truth but I for one sure believe it.

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Tucking one's testicles is considered channeling qi? – Dave Liepmann May 25 '12 at 14:56
Haha no, I meant they can take the kick due to qi training. They focus the qi on their scrotums, and so receiving less pain/damage. Sorry if I formulated it vaguely, feel free to edit the sentence to better understanding :) – poepje May 25 '12 at 15:01
My understanding is that it's just a parlor trick: they tuck their testicles into their abdomen, so when they get kicked it's not much worse than getting kicked anywhere else. – Dave Liepmann May 25 '12 at 15:03
How can they do that? As far as I know there are no muscles that allow you to 'tuck in' your testicles? Besides a kick to just the penis can really hurt as well, this coming from personal experience. – poepje May 25 '12 at 15:08
Getting kicked in the finger hurts too, but it doesn't have the well-recognizing debilitating effects of a testicle injury. As for testicle tucking, I'm not going to google it to find sources for you, but I understand it takes practice. :) If I'm wrong I'll stand corrected. – Dave Liepmann May 25 '12 at 15:10

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