What Is Gua Sha, Exactly?
In this traditional, centuries-old East Asian healing technique, skin is press-stroked with a hard porcelain spoon or a jade scraper. Modern practitioners use gua sha to speed healing and recovery. “We scrape the skin in order to relieve heat, toxins, or any kind of stagnation,” says Nikole Maxey, a certified acupuncturist in Berkeley.
The practice has been shown to help remove inflammation and improve circulation. Studies have shown that gua sha is an effective treatment for chronic neck and back pain. Maxey says it's also helpful to relieve symptoms of a cold and prevent it from getting into the lungs.
Gua sha is less scary than cupping and more comfortable than deep tissue massage, but it has similar, powerful results. Like Graston or other soft tissue mobilization techniques, gua sha breaks down scar tissue, removes tissue adhesions, increases range of motion, and stimulates proper healing. General massage can also do many of these things, but the gua sha tool helps practitioners apply more force and get deeper into tissue than simple hand massage can allow. It also makes it easier to find adhesions and other areas that need work—the louder or rougher the spot is, the more attention it needs and the more likely it is that the area is problematic.
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Here's how it works: A gua sha practitioner will scrape the skin around an injury, sore muscle, or the back until it becomes bright red or the tissue begins to feel smoother under the tool. My physical therapist followed the injured tendons around my ankle, moving up and down, as well as across the tissues.
What To Expect During A Session
I know what you're wondering: Does it hurt? While I would never describe a gua sha session as a relaxing trip to the spa, it isn’t horrifically painful or even close to the discomfort of a deep tissue massage. My physical therapist used a plastic gua sha scraper and a light coating of massage oil to scrape from my ankle to my knee. The whole thing took around 15 minutes. To get a feel for what it’s like, you can take a spoon, like the thick plastic kind you would eat pho with, and gently scrape it along your palm.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the nauseating noise the scraping made. When I first started gua sha, it sounded, and felt, like the tool was moving over gravel under my skin. Thanks to all of my scar tissue and adhesions, my tissue felt bumpy under the smooth edge of the tool. But I got used to it, and that noise decreased as I healed.
My therapist warned me before we started that I might leave with bruising or red dots, called petechiae, that could last a few days after the treatment. Sure enough, my skin would get hot and bright red during the session, but it faded quickly—none of the redness lasted more than an hour, tops. To be fair, I don’t bruise easily and I also applied arnica gel after each session to speed healing and reduce any potential bruising, which may have helped. Whether you have visible marks post-treatment depends a lot on the practitioner, your injury, where you're getting treatment, and if you're generally prone to bruising.
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My Results Were Instant—But Not Miraculous
I wish I could tell you that gua sha completely healed me, and that I ran my race, but it didn’t work out that way. The treatment did have a powerful effect, though: After my first treatment, I gained nearly 10 degrees of ankle flexion. That was huge for me—I had been stuck for weeks with little improvement in my ankle motion. I also immediately felt relief. Sure, my skin was a little raw, but the tension and tugging of my muscles and tendons were released. My increased range of motion and tissue relaxation helped reduce my pain for days afterward. I did up to three sessions a week for four months leading up to surgery, and I am using gua sha again to get back on my feet post-surgery.
Bottom line: Gua sha helped me recover faster from my surgery to repair my torn tendon. And it's a treatment option that's worth considering if you have:
- Lingering pain
- Muscle tension
- Neck or back pain
- Mobility issues
- Muscle soreness
- Musculoskeletal injury
- Intense training or exercise
- Cold or respiratory infection
While I was lucky enough to stumble upon a practitioner at my health center’s traditional physical therapy department, certified acupuncturists often also offer gua sha. You may also find gua sha at a sports’ medicine or a physical therapy center.