While gua sha appears to predate traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), gua sha somehow became incorporated in the arsenal of TCM tools. Essentially, gua sha is a kind of massage that involves skin scraping using a spoon or a specialized tool. The reason why gua sha blends so well with acupuncture and tui na (Chinese massage) is because skin scraping is an effective way of stimulating acupuncture and trigger points. Depending on the diagnosis and treatment strategy, gua sha can be used to increase or disperse the qi in organs through their corresponding channels, which are accessible through the skin surface. In other words, gua sha can be successfully used as a stand-alone modality for treatment of many maladies, particularly musculoskeletal conditions, and it is gradually making its way into integrative medicine (Nielsen, 2009). The use of Gua Sha in NYC—similarly to other larger cities with fast pace of life—has already become popular, because of scraping massage’s fast pain relief and mobility improvement.
Research has shown that when gua sha is used for patients with lower back pain, its anti-inflammatory and improved mobility effects last longer than those of a heating pad (Yuen et al., 2017). It has significant short-term pain-relieving effect and long-term beneficial results in management of neck pain (Braun et al., 2011). Gua sha can provide fast relieve in shoulder pain cases (Haysom-McDowell, Loyeung, & Walsh, 2017). While gua sha is most popular for musculoskeletal conditions such as neck or lower back pain, studies have shown than it can also benefit other health problems. One study, for example, showed that gua sha can be effective in relieving perimenopausal symptoms (Meng et al., 2017). Over all, gua sha can boost the immune system in specific cutaneous and subcutaneous areas, improving the body’s ability to fight intradermal antigens (Chen et al., 2016).
Usually, the gua sha practitioner feels around the painful region or the areas where active acupuncture points should be in search of tender points. Once the practitioner finds the right areas, he or she begins to stroke that region with a scraping tool applying gentle pressure. After a few minutes, the area becomes red, but its color varies from lighter to darker red, depending on the active points underneath the area. Researchers explain that skin scraping increases the microcirculation in the surface tissues, such as the skin and underlying muscles and connective tissues, thus increasing the healing process (Nielsen et al., 2007).
While gua sha is generally considered to be a safe procedure, it is not painful but rather pleasant, but like any other modality gua sha can lead to adverse effects in certain conditions, such as psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema, among others. Obviously, gua sha should not be performed over open wounds or broken skin. It is also important to know that gua sha, being scraping therapy, often leaves bruises and light tenderness or soreness in the scraped areas of the skin and underlying tissues.
Since gua sha often leaves bruises, it is best to wait until the scraped area heals before repeating the procedure. The time that is necessary for healing varies greatly from one individual to the next. At the same time, different practitioners use different degrees of pressure during gua sha, and there are significant variations in patients’ skin responses; some patients can bruise easily, while the same pressure with the same tool leaves no marks on others. It is always best to talk to your acupuncturist before you have gua sha done on you and make sure you express all your questions and concerns regarding your individual condition and past experiences.