Gua sha is the practice of using a tool to apply pressure and scrape the skin to relieve pain and tension. This action causes light bruising, which often appears as purple or red spots known as petechiae or sha.
The name Gua Sha — pronounced gwahshah — comes from the Chinese word for scraping. It may also be called skin scraping, spooning, or coining.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, Qi or Chi is energy that flows through the body. Many people believe that a person's Qi must be balanced and flowing freely to ensure their health and wellbeing.
People also believe that Qi can become blocked, causing pain or tension in the muscles and joints. Gua Sha aims to move this blocked energy to relieve aches or stiffness.
Traditional East Asian medicine also views blood stasis or stagnation as a cause of pain and illness. Another aim of Gua Sha is to move pooled or stagnated blood to relieve symptoms.
Some physiotherapists use a version of the technique known as instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM). Using a tool instead of the hands during a massage allows a physiotherapist to apply more pressure.
Gua Sha is most often used to relieve muscle and joint pain. Conditions of the muscles and bones are known as musculoskeletal disorders. Some examples include back pain, tendon strain, and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Practitioners say that Gua Sha can also benefit the immune system and reduce inflammation. Sometimes, Gua Sha is used to treat a cold, fever, or problems with the lungs.
Small injuries to the body, such as the bruises caused by Gua Sha, are sometimes known as microtrauma. These create a response in the body that may help to break up scar tissue.
Microtrauma may also help with fibrosis, which is a buildup of too much connective tissue when the body heals.
Physiotherapists may use IASTM on the connective tissue that is not working to move joints as it should. This problem may be due to a repetitive strain injury or another condition. Gua Sha is used alongside other treatments, such as stretching and strengthening exercises.
Studies suggest Gua Sha may help people who use computers and suffer from neck and shoulder pain. Researchers have carried out small studies on the following groups of people to see if Gua Sha works:
women near menopause
people with neck and shoulder pain from computer use
male weightlifters, to help with recovery after training
older adults with back pain
Women found that perimenopause symptoms, such as sweating, insomnia, and headaches, were reduced after Gua Sha.
A 2014 study found that Gua Sha improved the range of movement and reduced pain in people who used computers frequently compared with a control group that had no treatment.
In a 2017 study, weightlifters who had Gua Sha felt that lifting weights took less effort after treatment. This could suggest that the treatment speeds up muscle recovery.
Older adults with back pain were treated with either Gua Sha or a hot pack. Both treatments relieved symptoms equally well, but the effects of Gua Sha lasted longer.
After a week, those who had received Gua Sha treatment reported greater flexibility and less back pain than the other group.
Side effects and risks Gua Sha causes tiny blood vessels near the surface of the skin called capillaries to burst. This creates a distinctive red or purple bruise, known as sha.
The bruises usually take a few days or a week to heal and can be tender while healing. People can take an over-the-counter painkiller, such as ibuprofen, to help with pain and reduce swelling.
A person should protect the bruised area and take care not to bump it. Applying an ice pack can help to reduce inflammation and ease any pain.
***Gua Sha is not suitable for everybody. People who should not have Gua Sha include those:
who have medical conditions affecting the skin or veins
who bleed easily
who take medication to thin their blood
who have deep vein thrombosis
who have an infection, tumor, or wound that has not healed fully
who have an implant, such as a pacemaker or internal defibrillator