Every so often I work with a patient who has a particularly tight muscle, a large stubborn knot, or a seriously wiry and tight connective tissue. On those occasions, I pull out my Gua Sha tools and go to town. While many people think of Chinese medicine as being all about acupuncture and herbs, there are many lesser-known healing methods that are a part of this medicine. Among them is the practice of Gua Sha.
Yes, Gua Sha sounds like something you would yell right before delivering a Karate chop (Gua Shaaaaa!). Actually Gua is a Chinese term for scraping or rubbing, and Sha is the reddish mark that results from this procedure. Put together, Gua Sha is a hands on method of scraping the skin to promote healing. Gua Sha is effective because it relaxes your muscles, breaks up congestion, and increases circulation in the area being treated–all of which support the healing process.
Gua Sha involves scraping your skin slowly and systematically with repeated strokes using the smooth edge of a tool. The purpose is to reach deeply into your underlying tissues. In most cases, oil or lotion is used as a lubricant, while Gua Sha is performed on your back, neck, arms, or legs, or anywhere there are tendons or muscles. In addition, specific acupuncture points can be stimulated with Gua Sha as an alternative to acupuncture. The scraping causes Sha, or redness, (tiny broken capillaries) on the surface of the treated area, which is an indication of increased blood flow (a good thing). The redness fades within two to four days.
Gua Sha tools were traditionally made from water buffalo horn. Now, however, the tools can be made from other materials including ceramics, porcelain, plastic, jade, and even stainless steel. The tools come in a variety of shapes, depending on the job at hand, and in a pinch, a practitioner can use household objects such as a spoon or the plastic lid from a large jar.
While Gua Sha is a safe and painless method of treatment, there are a few situations when it should not be used. This includes working on patients who have bleeding/clotting disorders, patients who are very then or depleted, and kids. In addition, Gua Sha should never be performed over edema (swelling) or on the abdomen or lower back of a pregnant woman.
While not every practitioner of Chinese medicine uses Gua Sha, many do. It’s a great way to deliver a deep treatment into sore muscles, increase circulation, and speed up healing.