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What is Gua Sha?

Gua sha is a medical treatment that uses scraping or stroking with a variety of tools to stimulate blood flow and healing.  It is among the oldest traditional Chinese medicine treatments, and when provided by an experienced practitioner, it can bring lasting pain relief as well as improved overall health.

There are several popular translations of Gua sha. Where the word gua means rub, press, brush or scrape, the word sha translates to dirt or sand, and refers to the tiny red dots that appear after the technique is applied. Putting the two words together, Gua sha is known as a technique that scrapes away illness.

Gua sha’s long history

The earliest known reference to Gua sha dates back millions of years to the Paleolithic Age, when stone tools first began being used. At that time humans used stones or their hands to rub painful areas of their body. The technique was later developed into a treatment that infuses the medical records of the Ming Dynasty. Though Gua sha has been refined and improved since those early days, the basic premise remains the same, as do the results that it delivers. The scraping of the skin’s surface intentionally results in small red dots called ‘petechiae’ being raised, shifting pain and stiffness to the skin’s surface and providing relief to the underlying muscles and tissues.

What happens during a Gua sha treatment?

The scraping action of Gua sha is sometimes referred to as coining or spooning, and this may be a result of the tools that are used during the pressing and stroking of the body surface. There are several different tools that can be used. They may be made of stone, jade, or animal horn, and they are rubbed over the patient’s lubricated skin in one direction in order to activate blood circulation. The process pushes built-up fluid forward and leaves a vacuum behind, drawing toxins from the tissues below to the skin’s surface. The determination of where the scraping is to occur is based upon Traditional Chinese Medicine’s teachings about the pathways along which the life flow (qi) and blood travel. These meridians and collaterals connect and communicate directly with muscles, tissues and internal organs, and as a result the technique can not only provide relief of pain and stiffness but can also impact the body’s immune system and inflammatory processes and diseases.

The red rash-like area that is formed from the technique is the aftermath of Gua sha. It quickly dissipates, leaving behind blooms of purple and red that can be disturbing to see if the patient is unacquainted with the technique. Though the treatment is not painful when performed by a practitioner who is trained in the technique, the resulting broken capillaries under the skin often look alarming. The temporary skin discoloration is the liberation of stagnation in the tissues of the area. This sha generally disappears within a day or two, but before that happens the practitioner can learn a great deal about the patient’s constitutional condition both from where it appears and from its color. Inflammation is indicated by a sha that is a deep, dark red, while black or purple indicates more fluid and tissue stagnation. Light-colored sha can indicate a lack of adequate resources.

What conditions can Gua sha relieve?

Gua sha is frequently associated with relief from chronic or acute pain, but it can also be used to treat conditions ranging from the common cold and flu to migraines. A study conducted at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Continuum Center for Health and Healing confirmed that the technique creates a four-fold increase in microcirculation of surface tissue to the treated area. The researchers involved in this study reported that this increase in circulation resulted in a decrease in pain at the local area as well as at a distant area, and that while the increased circulation explained the local relief, “there is an unidentified pain-relieving biomechanism associated with Gua Sha” to distal areas as well.

Researchers have studied many of Gua sha’s impacts on the body, and though they have been unable to provide an explanation for its therapeutic effects, they also confirm that it occurs. One study confirmed that Gua sha improves the effectiveness of intradermal vaccinations, while others have examined and confirmed its impact on women suffering from conditions as diverse as breast engorgement during lactation and perimenopause. It has even been shown to provide a reduction in symptoms for a patient suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome, and to provide temporary relief of liver inflammation in patients suffering from chronic liver inflammation associated with Hepatitis B.

Increased popularity of Gua Sha

In recent years, the practice of Gua sha has been adopted by physical therapists, and specifically has been rebranded into a technique developed by David Graston, an athlete who self-treated his own knee injury using Gua sha. His version of the process has come to be known as the Graston Technique. Gua sha has also become a new favorite of the beauty industry, where Gua sha facials are said to increase circulation and lymphatic flow.

Gua Sha at Empirical Point Acupuncture

When administered by an experienced practitioner, Gua sha offers numerous benefits ranging from relief of spasms, stiffness and pain to a boost of the immune system. Sharon Sherman has been licensed to practice acupuncture and Oriental Medicine since 2001, and holds the highest credential available from both the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Her knowledge and understanding of the appropriate use of Gua sha can assure patients of the highest level of care and professionalism.

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