Although we are usually considered resilient and most martial arts prove that our bodies can take much damage, some specific sensitive spots cause more damage (of any kind) than others.
These spots are called pressure points.
In martial arts, pressure points are specific parts of the body (like the liver and solar plexus) where you can strike to cause pain.
I will explain what pressure points are in martial arts, where they are, and how you can use them to your advantage.
What Are Pressure Points in Martial Arts?
The notion of a pressure point is Oriental in origin and is not related to modern Western culture. It originated in traditional Asian medicine (mostly Chinese and Indian) but also in martial arts.
Pressure points can be defined as areas on the human body that may produce significant pain or other effects when manipulated in a specific manner.
As for martial arts, history doesn’t really give precise records on when and where pressure points originated, but we know that the Tamil people of India and Sri Lanka used pressure points in their martial art of Varma Kalai.
Varma Kalai is a complex system that includes traditional massage, alternative medicine, traditional yoga, and martial arts.
The body’s pressure points (Varmam) are then manipulated to heal or cause harm, depending on the context. The healing application is called vaidhiya murai and is nowadays applied as part of traditional Siddha Medicine (siddha vaidyam).
Applying the knowledge of pressure points in combat is known as Varma adimurai (Eng. “pressure-point striking”) and can be done either empty-handed or with a blunt weapon such as a stick or staff.
The strikes in Varma Kalai are aimed at the nerves, veins, tendons, soft tissues or ligaments, organs, and bone joints, points which are generally considered to be sensitive.
Another theory, stipulated in a 1942 edition of the Japanese Shin Budo magazine, suggests that the 11th/12th-century samurai, Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (actually Yoshimitsu Minamoto, but spelled like before due to linguistic traditions), was the first person that developed a fighting system based on utilizing pressure points. 
The article was written by Takuma Hisa, a prominent Japanese martial artist, so it probably has some credibility. Still, it’s uncertain whether the samurai created this skill before the Tamil people or at some later point.
Pressure Points for Self-Defense
According to Kyusho Jitsu, the human body has around 350 pressure points, but only a small fraction of them are actually usable for self-defense purposes.
Many pressure points are located around joints in the body, the knees being one of the best possible examples.
One general distinction of pressure points is as follows:
- Touch points – despite the name, touch points are not simply activated by a light touch to the body, although you really don’t have to put much pressure into it; the best way to describe them would be as pressing points because you have to press them to activate them properly;
- Rub points – these pressure points keep their literal meaning and also don’t require a lot of pressure on your side, meaning you just have to rub the point in question properly;
- Strike points – strike points are necessary for combat and self-defense, which is why they are also the most dangerous ones and require more pressure than others to utilize successfully.
Can You Paralyze Someone Using Pressure Points?
There is no way you can effectively use pressure points on a person’s body to paralyze or kill them. All of that is just a myth present in folklore and popular culture, especially from China and Japan.
Such techniques are effective in arts, where they are used for certain dramatic effects, but they do not exist in real life.
This is especially true for the so-called touch of death (or dim mak), a martial arts technique supposedly able to kill a person without lethal force by utilizing specific pressure points.
The dim mak is very popular in fiction (anime, manga, television, films, etc.), but it has not been successfully demonstrated and scientifically proven despite several claims throughout the years.
While it is possible to seriously harm and even kill someone in a fight, it has nothing to do with pressure points and the so-called touch of death.
You actually need to apply a lot of force and hit some of your opponent’s body’s more vulnerable parts to do so.
The same goes for paralysis – you can immobilize your opponent for a time by placing a good shot (e.g., a liver shot), but you will not actually paralyze them.
Check out how Stipe Miocic utilized liver shots to regain the belt from Daniel Cormier:
Pressure Point Fighting
Pressure point fighting is a form of combat based on utilizing your opponent’s pressure points against them in a fight.
What happens when you hit someone’s pressure point? Depending on the point and the manner of interaction, it can cause extreme, excruciating pain. It can cause a stunning sensation, disrupt your balance and motor functions or hinder your reflexes.
This also reflects on the consequences of hitting a pressure point, which can be motor dysfunction, balance dysfunction, involuntary muscle spasms, disorientation, drooling, and even loss of consciousness.
Still, the above-discussed paralysis and death are not among the potential consequences of hitting pressure points.
Modern martial arts know three main methods of pressure point fighting:
- Pressure point fighting that relies on pain compliance
- Pressure point fighting that relies on blood flow
- Pressure point fighting that relies on impact
As you can see, each method focuses on a different aspect. Based on that same aspect, the consequences of applying each technique are different (e.g., using techniques that focus on blood flow might easily cause your opponent to lose consciousness).
When discussing the essential pressure points in this form of fighting, you can utilize several different techniques. The best pressure points to target are:
- Back of the neck – the back of the neck is a very sensitive area with a lot of neurological structures and glands, all of which play an important part in our bodies, and you also have the spine and the balance-control center right in that area, which shows not only how dangerous that area is, but also how useful if you find yourself in a sticky situation;
- Chin – along with the jaw, this is a very sensitive area that will cause a lot of pain if hit properly, all due t the fact that it is connected to your skull, your mouth, and your teeth, all of which are generally very sensitive and can cause a lot of pain;
- Ears – if you’re not wearing a helmet, your ears will probably be vulnerable, but luckily enough, not many people know that ears are a very sensitive weak spot that might cause significant pain, but also lead to some neurological complications;
- Eyes – because the eyes are usually open and very sensitive, an effective strike in just one eye will significantly weaken your opponent, as it will cause strong pain and will disable him from seeing (and thereby defending) properly;
- Nose – you won’t get knocked out just by having your nose hit, but the structure of the nose is such that hitting it properly is one of the more painful experiences people can have, and that is even without the unfortunate outcomes of having a bleeding or a broken nose;
- Temple – another part of our skull that is very sensitive because it is very painful, and it can also cause bleeding, headaches, and even loss of consciousness if you’re hit in the right place with a well-placed shot, which is exactly why you need to protect this area;
- Throat – finally, you probably deduce why this is an important pressure point; we breathe using our throat, we eat using it, and if a good neck shot can do a lot of damage, it probably will, and you probably don’t want to feel like you’re chocking and fighting for some air.
What Are the Knockout Pressure Points?
This is quite a common term in martial arts and especially pressure points combat, but the definition of such pressure points is not clear. There are two existing definitions, but neither of them is completely correct. The difference lies in their intensity.
Namely, according to some karate practitioners, knockout pressure points cause light dizziness for the opponent, while others claim that they have to cause severe dizziness.
The truth lies somewhere else, though. Despite the name, knockout pressure points will not always knock out an opponent, so don’t be overly hopeful when this aspect is concerned.
In most cases, they are completely useless in real-life situations and self-defense, meaning you’ll have to use classical martial arts skills to get out of such situations.
In terms of self-defense, the only true knockout pressure point is the one that can quickly and effectively knock one’s opponent out, and such maneuvers are really seldom when it comes to pressure points fighting.
You have to be strong, you have to be precise, and you have to hit the right spot to achieve the desired effect.
Since they are really rare, there are only two applicable methods in this case:
- Impact pressure fighting, because the strength of the shot (be it with your limbs or with a weapon) will lead to an immediate loss of consciousness due to the large force in question, and;
- Blood flow pressure fighting because reducing the blood flow to the brain leads to loss of consciousness, but you have to be skilled to make such moves (e.g., chokes, holds, etc.) successfully in a real-life situation.