What is Gua Sha? In Chinese, the word Gua (刮) is defined as scraping or rubbing, and the word Sha (痧) as an area of red skin. Together the words Gua Sha (pronounced Gwar Shar) indicate a method of rubbing or scraping to produce small red spots called ‘petachiae’. Variations of Gua Sha, have been found throughout Southeast Asia and it has a long and rich history. In China, it dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). Gua Sha has been shown in various studies to increase circulation which reduces pain. The therapy also clears heat, which is why for generations it was used as a method of reducing fevers, in both the young and the elderly.
Just some of the conditions I use Gua Sha in combination with acupuncture and massage are:
Post exercise soreness
Back & Neck Pain
Shoulder Pain / Rotator Cuff Injury
Carpal Tunnel Pain
Headache / Migraine
Traditionally, tools such as smooth edged coins, jade stone & buffalo horn were used, with an oil based medium rub the skin. My go-to balm is my Red Sage Sports Balm, which has red sage root infused into black sesame oil to encourage blood flow and reduce muscle soreness. However, today the most common tools are flat pieces of jade stone, or commonly, a porcelain Chinese soup spoon.
With the increasing integration of Chinese Medicine therapies into Western modalities, more scientific research is being done on the physiological effects of Gua Sha and how it works to reduce muscle pain, treat headache, reduce the symptoms of the flu, asthma, and even mastitis.
A study using laser doppler imaging measured the effects of Gua Sha on blood flow of the area treated and it was found that there was a 400% increase of microcirculation in the first 7.5 minutes after treatment with a significant elevation for 25 minutes after. With this increased blood circulation comes an increase in oxygen, white blood cells (such as lymphocytes), reduction in lactic acid and an increased surface temperature. All of this allows muscles to relax, absorb nutrients and expel accumulated toxins.
Research has also shown that Gua Sha triggers the release of a hormone call heme-oxygenase-1 which is needed for internal anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory molecules to work efficiently. With further investigation, this may be promising for those with conditions that result in the inflammation of smooth muscle, such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and even chronic Hepatitis B.
So what does it feel like to receive Gua Sha? If treating the body, there is no more discomfort than receiving a firm massage. For facial Gua Sha, the pressure is very light so as not to damage delicate skin. The aim of the treatment is to produce clusters of small red spots (except when performing facial gua sha). These are similar in the way cupping will produce red circles. The spots are not damage to the skin, but rather are areas where blood has been squeezed out of the superficial vessels which increases the overall blood flow in the area, improves oxygenation which in turn reduces pain and relaxes muscles.
Gua sha is not appropriate if you are taking medications which thin the skin such as corticosteroids, if you have sunburn, and it would never be applied over areas such as raised moles.
After the treatment, the red areas are not painful and fade somewhere between three and seven days, depending on your own circulation. It is recommended to keep the area covered and out of direct sunlight for a few days. It is the accumulated redness that brings the additional blood flow and hence the healing and systemic benefits of the treatment.
Gua Sha is versatile, can be applied to patients of all ages and is a great addition to any Chinese Medicine treatment.