I never thought that allowing a stranger to intensely rub my muscles with a blunt tool would relieve my chronic pain, but here we are. A month later I am still basking in the assuaging effects of Gua Sha, a healing technique of Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM).
You may have previously experienced some form of Gua Sha without having the exact name for it. The technique has roots heavily grounded in folk medicine, and it predates even acupuncture.
“When I teach classes, I frequently hear, ‘Grandma used to do this to me’,” Dr. Tom Ingegno DACM, MSOM, LAc, an acupuncturist at Charm City Integrative Health says. That’s because Gua Sha, while part and parcel of TEAM was traditionally done in homes prior to seeking a physician’s care.
Favorite household tools, Ingegno says, would be Chinese soup spoons, jar lids or large coins. Nowadays, jade tools of various shapes are readily available online and in most acupuncture centers.
The benefits of Gua Sha
At first, I was hesitant when my acupuncturist asked me if I wanted to try Gua Sha. A quick Google search revealed intimidating photos of beet-red human backs as a consequence of being massaged with the tool.
However, I was soon placated by the fact that the raised redness along the treated muscle group isn’t indicative of treatment painfulness but rather the amount of tension it’s relieving. “Even though the technique looks intense, feedback from satisfied patients confirms [its effectiveness],” Ingegno tells Considerable.
Jamie Bacharach, a Licensed Acupuncturist, Eastern Medicine Practitioner, Gua Sha Practitioner and the Head of Practice at Acupuncture Jerusalem, says that relief of muscle stiffness and pain is one of the most commonly referenced benefits of Gua Sha.
“More serious injuries can be treated by Gua Sha as well, including arthritis, migraines, and fibromyalgia,” Bacharach tells me. “Edema in the face can be treated by a [less vigorous] form of [the treatment] called facial Gua Sha, and skin health in general can be improved and blood circulation promoted via facial Gua Sha.”
Gua Sha benefits can be felt immediately and last for weeks or months, depending on the frequency of treatment. And, according to Bacharach, even just one treatment can result in long-lasting benefits.
“The nature of the case and patient also plays a factor in regards to benefits experienced,” she notes.
What to expect
Gua Sha techniques are very straight forward.
Basically, whatever tool the practitioner chooses, will be “scraped” along the pathway of the muscle repeatedly with mild to moderate pressure until redness begins rising to the surface. The more tension and pain stored in the area being treated, the brighter red and inflamed it will appear post-treatment. “If it is just muscle soreness it will look less aggravated,” says Ingegno.
During my treatment, the practitioner applied an oil-based lubricant to my forearms (the site of my chronic pain) and began applying rhythmic pressure with the tool in order to relieve tension. She instructed me to breathe deeply and consistently checked in on how I was feeling — the entire treatment, which was done at the tail-end of my acupuncture session, lasted about 10 minutes.
“The exact nature of the Gua Sha treatment — the pressure being applied, the angles and patterns for application, the tool being used, etc. — will depend on the judgement and skill of the Eastern Medicine Practitioner,” notes Bacharach. “Different cases call for approaches that may vary but all follow the same underlying principles and goal to promote circulation and energy flow within the body and targeted area.”
The side effects of Gua Sha
Since I carry a great deal of tension and discomfort in my arms, I’ll admit that after I was treated it looked like I’d been beaten with a belt. However, it was nothing that a few long-sleeved shirts couldn’t conceal and it faded after a few days. The relief to my chronic pain was well worth the temporary redness and moderate bruising.
Interestingly, when I asked Ingegno why this happens, he told me that Gua Sha translates to “scraping the evil wetness.” If the area treated doesn’t come up red, classically speaking, there was no “sha” or evil wetness present. Perhaps it’s time I start referring to my chronic pain as villainous and wet.
Aside from the red marks and light-to-moderate bruising, a more seductive side-effect of Gua Sha is its positive impact on mental health. “Gua Sha can certainly help with mental health by alleviating stress and anxiety while providing a calming effect,” says Bacharach. Any technique that stimulates blood flow and induces relaxation can help you switch your autonomic nervous system out of fight or flight (sympathetic response) into rest and digest (parasympathetic response).
While in rest and digest mode, Ingegno explains, your body enters a healing state and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine can normalize, leaving a feeling of relaxation and mental well being. I concur: After Gua Sha, I was on cloud nine, my “evil wetness” nowhere to be found.