If you click on the occasional fitness ad, your social media feed is probably flooded with videos of percussive massage guns, vibrating foam rollers and other tools of myofascial self-care. More often these days, those ads include implements of gua sha, a traditional Chinese medicine technique used to treat muscle pain, tension and a host of other maladies.
Also called scraping or coining, gua sha is the practice of scraping the skin with a hard, thin tool for a range of purposes. Professional practitioners like chiropractors and physical therapists — along with at-home users — employ the method to break up scar tissue, smooth out connective tissue, encourage blood flow and promote better movement of the joints and muscles. Some claim gua sha can boost the immune system and cure illnesses. Others believe it can transfer energy in the body and balance chi.
Like many wellness trends, even those rooted in centuries of traditional Chinese medicine, there are often more questions than answers. But recent studies, along with many years of anecdotal evidence, suggest gua sha might be worth trying.
One study published in Explore: the Journal of Science and Healing found gua sha showed promise for pain relief. The practice resulted in a fourfold increase in microcirculation — circulation of the blood in the smallest blood vessels — and study participants reported a decrease in muscle pain. This led researchers to conclude gua sha may be beneficial for treating pain.
Another study in the Pain Medicine journal found gua sha has beneficial short-term effects for patients with chronic neck pain. Though the researchers noted its role in long-term pain management is unclear. And a joint study by Massachusetts General Hospital and Hong Kong Polytechnic University looked at how gua sha and hot packs treated lower back pain. Both modalities improved pain and inflammation equally well, but patients receiving gua sha treatment reported longer-lasting effects.
Arya Nelson, PhD, an acupuncturist at Beth Israel Medical Center who wrote a book on gua sha, is also a believer in the technique’s ability to treat pain. According to her, it “produces an anti-inflammatory and immune protective effect that persists for days following a single gua sha treatment.” As a result, she says it can be effective at everything from reducing muscle pain and stiffness to treating internal organ disorders like liver inflammation.
Interestingly, further research shows gua sha may also prove beneficial for athletic performance. A 2017 paper published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine showed gua sha lowered the rating of perceived exertion among weightlifters. Over an eight-week study, participants who received gua sha recovery therapy twice per week reported lower exertion rates during Olympic lifts (the snatch, clean and jerk) than those in the control group.
Gua sha scraping causes tiny blood vessels near the surface of the skin to burst, so many people experience significant red or purple bruising. The technique itself is not typically painful, but afterward, it’s common to experience some tenderness in the treated area. While the skin should not be broken during scraping, it is possible. So, you should be careful to always use clean instruments to avoid the possibility of contamination.
Self-care gua sha products are easy to find online, but like most treatments, gua sha is best left to trained professionals. If you’d like to give it a try, look for chiropractors and alternative medicine practitioners who perform the technique, and you’ll have the best chance of enjoying a safe and effective experience.