What You Should Know About Gua Sha Therapy

Most of us have never heard of gua sha — but if you experience persistent joint or muscle pain, especially in the shoulder, neck, or back, this hands-on drug-free form of treatment is definitely worth knowing about.

Gua sha therapy is an East Asian healing procedure that’s commonly administered by an acupuncturist, although it does not require the use of needles. The acupuncturist rather uses a handheld round-edged, tool on a specific part of the body to “press-stroke” (stroke while administering mild pressure) the skin over and over without breaking the skin.

The aim of gua sha therapy in West Orange is to relieve what in Chinese medicine is known as ‘blood stagnation.’ This symbolizes a form of capillary constriction near the surface of the skin and is related to persistent or fixed pain and occasionally, illness. Unblocking congested blood enhances blood flow to the organs, tissues, and muscles directly underneath the area being treated. Instant positive changes in mobility, stiffness, and are experienced by the patient.

According to Arya Nielsen, PhD, author of the book Gua Sha – A Traditional Technique for Modern Practice, the press-stroking movements in gua sha therapy force red blood cells to escape the tiny capillaries and enter into nearby tissues. There is no external bleeding and the capillaries are not broken, but the petechiae, (the several tiny reddish spots of blood) appear just underneath the surface of the skin, giving the site of treatment a rashlike appearance, (the petechiae is not the same as bruising, since according to Dr. Nielsen, a bruise symbolizes traumatic damage to the tissue and can take a week or more to heal; with gua sha however, the tissue remains undamaged). The red blood cells instantly start to be reabsorbed. The ensuing collapse of hemoglobin (the pigment in the red blood cells that contains oxygen) amplifies the reaction of a certain enzyme and the bile pigments biliverdin and bilirubin—all of which have anti-inflammatory qualities and activate the immune system, encouraging healing within a few days.

For those who are interested in trying gua sha therapy, you should know that it is usually administered on the hips, shoulder, neck, and back although from time to time it can be used on other parts of the body. In traditional Chinese medicine, the treated area is sometimes the painful spot itself, but other times, it is a body part that is associated with a certain meridian (body channel) or organ.

One session of gua sha session therapy typically lasts 10 minutes or so. The practitioner first palpates a body part in order to evaluate whether the tissue has ‘sha’ or stagnation. The site of treatment is then emolliated with a product like Badger Balm or oil.

The press-stroking comes next. The Chinese traditionally utilized a soup spoon with smooth edge; nowadays, however, practitioners often use a handheld device that looks like a metal cap with a smooth lip. When one undergoes gua sha therapy, there is a real albeit minimal risk of exposure to blood-borne microorganisms, gua sha instruments should therefore not be reused on other patients. According to Dr. Nielsen, practitioners often use simple and disposable metal caps, instead of the antiquated bone, stone, jade, coin, or spoon tool. Each specific narrow area of skin called “stroke-line,” is stroked with pressure six to ten times. The skin simply turns pink when there is no blood stagnation –the gua sha, causes the tiny red petechiae to appear where there is stagnation.

Dr. Nielsen says that gua sha feels invigorating to the patient. If done properly it will not hurt. She said that the treatment can also be administered on children and babies without any problem. The elevated red marks on the skin quickly start to change and dissipate, and within a few days are completely gone. After a session, it is best to drink water and moderate one’s activity. After a treatment, patients should avoid any hard labor, feasting, fasting, sex, alcohol, or drugs for the rest of the day. In other words, they should “chill.”

The amount of treatments required varies and depends on the condition or conditions of the patient. Some patients may feel lasting relief within just one or two treatments. Patients suffering from chronic conditions may need three sessions a week apart, followed by treatments every other week, as needed. As with most medical treatments, the treatment cost may vary based on the location and training of the practitioner. Call your insurance company and see if they pay for the treatment if it covers healthcare by an acupuncturist.

Gua sha is a very safe form of treatment for people suffering from serious conditions like diabetes. It can be administered on people taking anticoagulant drugs and for pregnant women although for safety’s sake, it is important that they seek treatment from a licensed qualified practitioner who specializes in gua sha. Acupuncturists often have such training, as do some massage therapists and physical therapists. To look for a qualified practitioner, Dr. Nielsen recommends phoning or going to the office of licensed acupuncturists near your area and ask them about the amount of experience they have with the therapy. You can find acupuncturists near your areas and ascertain their licensure through your state’s public health department, office of professional regulators, consumer affairs office, or similar agency.