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Can Gua Sha Scraping Therapy Alleviate Muscle Pain?

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Photo: Getty Images/photo-chick.com

You may have heard of gua sha through your favorite celebrity influencers and beauty gurus. But like acupuncture cupping, this therapeutic practice—which literally translates to scrape—descends from Eastern Chinese medicine and is born of a tradition that's been around since way before beauty vlogs took off.

"Gua sha is a technique of rubbing and stimulating the skin that we've been using for thousands of years in Chinese medicine, and relatively recently it's become a treatment for facial and skin health," says Noah Rubinstein, director of The Yinova Center in New York City and a board-certified acupuncturist and clinical herbalist who holds a doctorate in Chinese medicine. (Related: Could the Kansa Wand Facial Tool Replace Your Jade Roller?)

Because of its relaxing visual, facial gua sha went viral. Who wouldn't want their face massaged with a healing crystal stone? But rarely do you see an image of the OG scraping method—gua sha body therapy—which can alleviate muscle pain and reduce inflammation, among other things.

Here, everything you need to know about the ancient practice that's blowing up.

What Are the Benefits of Gua Sha?

"Full body gua sha can benefit the skin, but actually is more about promoting circulation in the muscles and other deep tissues. We use it for injuries, muscle spasms generally, inflammation, mobility, and long-standing chronic tension that's causing either local pain or organ dysfunction," explains Rubinstein. Similar to foam rolling, it can increase flexibility and joint mobility, but gua sha is more targeted and can reach both smaller and larger joints that aren't as easily accessible otherwise. 

"Gua sha is a great ancillary treatment to reduce pain and inflammation," seconds Deepa Verma, M.D., an integrative holistic medicine doctor. So while it may not be the only thing you do depending on your specific ailment, she adds that it can be helpful for a wide range of people, including "menopausal women experiencing hormonal changes, weightlifters who need help with recovery, and people who have chronic back pain and muscle tension."

In addition to relieving muscle pain, there's even evidence to suggest that this press-stroke treatment of the skin can help boost your immune system, explains board-certified acupuncturist Elizabeth Trattner. The scratching and scraping can send signals locally to the skin and modulate defensive functions, like fighting off the common cold. Sometimes, it can even be used in lieu of traditional painkillers. "Right now with the opioid epidemic at an all-time high, we are looking to ancient remedies that help decrease pain without addictive substances. Gua sha has excellent clinical efficacy for reducing pain with little to no side effects (except a rash!)" says Trattner.

While gua sha is a very effective treatment, Rubinstein emphasizes that it's only one part of Chinese medicine. "It's rarely done alone. As a patient's condition requires, between the gua sha treatments we provide acupuncture, tui na (therapeutic bodywork), moxibustion [burning plant materials near skin], cupping, and herbs that are taken internally as medicine or applied topically as liniments or ointments," he explains.

What Tools Are Used for Scraping?

The flat stone made of rose quartz or jade you've likely seen on Instagram is typically used for the face. While these flat massagers (as well as jade rollers) can also be used on the body, to dig deeper into the skin and get maximum results, a porcelain or wood Chinese soup spoon is often the best tool. Facing the hollow side, it helps to loosen up tight areas and helps to move stagnant energy (otherwise known as qi) and blood in the body, Rubinstein explains. (Related: Are Jade Rollers Really a Magical Anti-Aging Skin-Care Tool?

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

#fridaysinmanahawkin! Happy Friday!!! We made it to another weekend! Only two left before Santa comes! This week in our #manahawkinlocation, we are using some #GuaSha on patient Andrea who came in with a #stiffneck. Gua Sha feels like a really fast deep tissue #massage and is used to relieve #muscularpain and #tension. It can also be used to loosen #muscles on patients that have frequent #headaches and even early stage #colds. We use a #wonton #spoon in this video but traditionally the side of a #buffalohorn is used. The marks fade within a few days but the results last. Just like after a massage, it is important to drink lots of water to help any residual soreness and speed up the healing process! Take a watch! #teamthompson #teamthsm #acupuncture #acupuncturist #acupunctureworks #guashatherapy #chiropractic #physicaltherapy #holistichealth #manahawkinnj

A post shared by Chiro/Acu/PT/Pain Management (@thompsonhealthcare) on

While you can buy the massage tool yourself, to implement gua sha effectively requires an understanding of the specific regions to target. So if you want to try it out for yourself (on the areas you can reach), ask a specialist for pointers first, or watch a YouTube video for tips on how and where to stroke the skin.

Wait, WTF Is Qi?

If you're interested in trying gua sha, you need to understand qi or chi—the currency of Chinese medicine. In Eastern medicine, qi is thought to act as the energy that flows throughout your body. Acupuncture, too, is centered around a blockage in the body's life energy. When gua sha is performed, the energy that was once stagnant can now flow more freely, which can help relieve aches and stiffness, Rubinstein explains. The premise is that once qi is in motion, a once fragmented system can connect and harmonize as one. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Energy Work—and Why You Should Try It)

So, Should You Try Gua Sha Therapy?

Gua sha is a very deep and intense treatment. So if you're looking to iron out tension in larger muscles like the back, shoulders, neck, legs, and arms, then this therapy will likely get to the core of your problem.

"It differs from a massage in that it considers the Chinese medical view of how your body works and the underlying organ and tissue systems. It's also deeper than most massages you're going to get and more localized to problematic areas," explains Rubinstein. If you're dealing with muscle pain and mobility issues, you're the perfect candidate, he says. But if you're looking for relaxation or an anxiety reducer, acupuncture or a traditional massage would be more up your alley.

Rubinstein notes that the tighter you are or the more muscle dysfunction you have, the more sensitive you'll be to the treatment and the worse the appearance of your skin will be afterward—think redness, irritation, and bruising (which often appears as purple or red spots, otherwise known as petechiae).

People who've had surgery recently, who have clotting disorders, or who can't tolerate pain aren't the right candidates for this therapy.

What Gua Sha Therapy Is Really Like

Like many people, whenever I'm stressed, I feel it in my shoulders and upper-back area. Facialists and manicurists are always telling me how tense I am. But massages never quite reached the depth of my problem. So when I started gua sha for my face and benefited from its calming results, I wondered if there was a version of gua sha for the body. Thanks to the internet, I discovered that there most definitely is—and after talking to Rubinstein about the benefits of gua sha, I was sold.

Before my treatment even began, Rubinstein asked me about my diet, menstrual cycle, and more to get to the root of my back pain—which he said could be somatization: stress manifesting as physical pain. He also alleviated my concerns by confirming that my skin won't actually peel off from the spoon scraping!

So what did it actually feel like? I'd liken it to an uncomfortable massage in a hurts-so-bad-it-feels-good sort of way. He warned me not to send my mom the photo where I look like my back got clawed by a bear—but of course, I did anyway. Her reaction was equal parts horror and confusion. Luckily, in just a few days, the redness turned into a henna tattoo-like brown and eventually faded away completely.

But the truth is, it was worth the discomfort: I instantly felt more mobility in my shoulders and back. This isn't uncommon: "There are people who come in and can't move a joint and neck but they regain movement that they haven't had in a long time immediately after the treatment or in a day's time," Rubinstein says.

In the days to come, a feeling of relaxation replaced those pestering stress-induced aches. I can't say that I'm totally cured—a month later I started to tense up again. (Monthly treatments were recommended for maintenance and to sustain the results achieved the first time around.) Bottom line? Like facials and vitamin refills, I definitely plan on adding scraping to my seasonal to-do list.

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