Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pricking Fingers

Dear Korean,

I have been watching Korean dramas and there is something I noticed. When someone is not feeling well, they will use a needle to prick the fingers. How does that help? Is it a Korean thing?


Dear Kat,

Yes. To be more specific, it is a type of acupuncture.

The remedy is usually deployed for severe indigestion -- the type that feels like the food is stuck somewhere just above your stomach, happening mostly when you eat a little too fast. (Koreans have a word for this condition - che or geup-che - that is separate from normal indigestion. But the Korean cannot think of a single English word that is equivalent.)

The remedy itself is really easy. Sanitize a needle either by burning the tip or washing it with alcohol. Tie your thumb with a string or a rubber band to constrict the bloodflow. Then prick the little sliver of flesh on the corner of the thumb where it meets the fingernail. Press and let the blood out. The end result should look like the picture below.

 Example of a medicinally pricked finger.

Based on personal experience and numerous, numerous first-person accounts, this remedy works like a charm; usually after about 15 minutes or so, you can feel the "stuck" feeling slowly going away. But how does this work? Chinese medicine practitioners have an explanation based on the body's qi flow and about how the bodily functions are replicated on a person's hand. But as far as the exact science is concerned, the mechanism by which pricking a finger helps indigestion is a mystery, like the way the exact mechanism by which acupuncture helps is still a mystery. Also, Korean doctors warn that this remedy only mitigates the symptoms without curing the underlying cause. Feel free to try out this remedy, but the safe thing to do is to visit the doctor.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. It also doesn't work for everyone. I seem immune to the benefits of finger pricking, although other forms of acupuncture do seem to work on me.

  2. I got sick in Korea when I came for a visit one summer because I ate some meat that hadn't been completely cooked and my immune system wasn't totally adjusted to Korea after having been out of Korea for more than 15 years.

    The next day I ate some juk (rice porridge) and kept complaining that my stomach was killing me. My aunt tried the finger pricking thing. I'd have to say that it worked to relieve my nausea, but definitely not in the way that she had intended, as I barfed all over her the instant the pin went in.

    And that my friends, is the first and last time I ever tried it.

  3. I've heard it being explained two different ways:
    1. Placebo effect - The belief that the method is effective actually helps alleviate the symptom.
    2. The pain dissociation - Because of the fear/pain of getting your finger pricked, you forget about the original pain (the indigestion).

    My response: Psssh~~ As a Korean who has got her finger pricked after having an indigestion, I can testify that this stuff works!

  4. @The Seoul Searcher,
    After you threw up did you get better? If you did, the finger pricking did work. Relief comes in different forms.

    1. Throwing up is the body's way on removing a foreign substance, so can't really say what gave him the relief.

  5. Burning or washing the needle isn't correct sterile procedure, and you're still risking an infection.

    I would suggest that history is full of pseudoscience remedies that have since been discarded as useless and dangerous. Acupuncture has no good evidence supporting its use, and has been associated with dangerous (and even fatal) infections.

    Scientist and doctors don't like to talk about it, lest they be labelled ethnocentrists for condemning an "Eastern" medicine. Funny, I thought Europeans just called it bloodletting.

    Here is an English lesson: the plural of anecdote is "anecdotes," not "data."

    I know of no study addressing this particular claimed benefit of acupuncture, but I do know that every well-controlled trial of acupuncture has failed to produce a measurable effect.

    1. @spencer
      Acupuncture is not a panacea, so it won't work for everything but this type of traditional medicine is much more sophisticated and meticulously documented over thousands of years compared to the clueless and random blood lettings
      which might have happened elsewhere, which would most certainly cause severe infections since those wounds from rusty saws would leave a open slit.

      There are instances where the positive effects of this hand puncture technique were noted: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10992837
      and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12351304

      Also, In a country like Cuba, there was a time when doctors and dentists did not have access to pain relievers, hence the whole country started to adopt acupuncture as a reliable means of pain relief to this day.
      "In the first half of the year, more than 2,000 people had teeth removed using acupuncture as anesthesia in Las Tunas, 694 kms east of Havana. The anesthetic method was also used with positive results in hospitals in that province."
      I also had a colleague in pre-med/dental who was from Cuba who told me about this firsthand.

      I would think twice before blindly discounting unfamiliar methods due to ignorance. Even I don't know much about eastern medicine, since there isn't much available information in English and time has a large factor in the loss of countless artifacts through war and other ravages. however I don't go around telling people that it's witchcraft. There are things that both western and eastern health providers don't know about the body.

    2. Like how Chip setting said... You can't simply ignore THOUSANDS of years of medicine evolution just because there isn't concrete WESTERN evidence and also, just because "modern medicine" has proven that it actually works, if you check out here in the Amazon, there are many tribes with different type of treatment for certain diseases that also DO WORK and that still has yet to be explained... how do you think humans have evolved up till this time without "modern medicine"? We tried methods, failed, succeeded and passed it on to generations and generations... we can't simply ignore this

  6. @David

    I felt a little better since some of the undigested meat came out of me, but I don't think my aunt appreciated it.

    I couldn't eat anything for the rest of the day until it was entirely out of my system.

  7. @spencer

    Grab your left arm with your right hand, palm facing the bend in your elbow and your thumb behind the elbow joint.

    Now, move your hand forward allowing your thumb to slide over your elbow joint.

    You'll feel a tingle in your left hand below your pinky and ring finger.

    Evidence enough?

    You should feel

    1. Not sure which point you're trying to make, but doing what you said actually compresses a nerve branch which is responsible for the skin innervation in that area ( can't remember too many details from my former life as a medicine student) ... like what happens when you sit too long pressing the inner part of the elbow on a hard surface, or the shooting pain when hitting the elbow

      as for the acupuncture , no one really identified or measured this "qi" ... BUT since the nerves in the skin are continuously collecting data and sending it to the brain, which in turn will inform and modulate the rest of the body functions - which will adjust according to what is happening in each organ (which also sends feedback to the central nervous structures) , it's not really out of this world to say that some pricking could influence your body in a certain way... still, it's really sort of a blind man' s approach to get a result, and it won't work for everybody

  8. I remember my dad doing this when I was a kid having a bad tummy ache. It works miraculously. I'm not Korean, but I think this method has been used in any Asian family.

  9. "Acupuncture has no good evidence supporting its use, and has been associated with dangerous (and even fatal) infections."

    ? When and where has acupuncture been associated with dangerous or fatal infections? I suppose if the practitioner fails to sterilize the needles, this could happen, but that's no different from any other kind of doctor doing his job poorly.

    Keep in mind that the lack of evidence for something doesn't constitute evidence against it. That's a fallacy. The National Institute of Health's studies were "inconclusive" and "hard to interpret," which doesn't give solid reasons for or against believing in acupuncture's efficacy.
    They are probably the most 'objective' and 'credible' source for research on this, but if anything they would be biased against alternative medicine rather than towards it. They weren't exactly happy to be doing these studies on such weird fringe medicine at all at the time, which happened mainly because of the influence of a single Senator.


  10. After going out for grilled meat with the hagwon boss last night I felt deadly sick enough to give this a try. I'm so scared of needles that I wasn't even able to draw blood - just make a slight dent in the skin. Within one minute I violently vomited up everything I'd eaten. So now I feel great and can go to work! Thank you Ask a Korean!

  11. THX ALOT!!! MY brother had a bad stomachache and i didnt know what to do! Then i found this page and i tried!! It works like a miracle! My brother vomited immediately and he felt much better!! Thanks Ask a Korean!

  12. I've always wondered why people in dramas scratch the needle on their heads before pricking someone's finger. Now, I'm very familiar with finger pricking, but that's always bothered me. Doing that is down right unsanitary. Why do some Koreans do it?

  13. I watched a Korean drama lately and was curious about the finger pricking too. And to think that it led me to this fantastic blog. I am elated ! Thanks loads.

    ... Green-eyed monster

  14. I'm assuming everyone is aware that neither first-hand experience nor any number of anecdotes is really evidence that this works, especially given that waiting 15 minutes is a pretty good cure for indigestion with or without a finger prick.

    Acupuncture doesn't work in the sense that it doesn't work any better than sham therapy (that is, poking people in random places or with realistic-feeling needles that don't penetrate the skin). I don't think many argue that it doesn't work at all.

    Eliot, you are correct that absence of evidence isn't generally the same thing as negative evidence. But scientific claims should be rejected by default, and at any rate a large number of studies failing to find positive evidence are what you'd expect from an ineffective treatment. This is particularly true for a treatment that does work, but not in the way it's supposed to ("stabbing people with needles makes them less nauseous, but it doesn't really matter where the needles go").

    Theoretical arguments (no plausible mechanism apart from placebo; number of meridians is linked to number of rivers in China; general incompatibility of TCM worldview with scientific physicalism) should push a neutral observer further towards disbelief.

    As a side note, the almost absurd levels of publication bias that seem to plague the East Asian and especially the Chinese medical establishments aren't helping.

    1. Ok, I'm Greek and the first time I saw pritching your finger to cure indigestion was in a Korean drama some days ago, and accidentally found this page (I was not searching it). Well, I just wanted to say: Adam is so 100% right.

  15. What a shakespearean remedy!

    "By the pricking of my thumbs
    something wicked this way comes"

    (Macbeth Act 4 scene 1 line 44-45)

    Titling your post what you did will always strike me as a lost opportunity

  16. I'm reading this from Spain and actually the girlfriend's chinese boss did it this "remedy" and works very well. The symptoms pass 15 min after


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