Scrape the Stagnation Away: The Ancient Practice of Gua Sha

Gua sha got a lot of buzz a few years ago when GOOP published a few articles touting it as a miracle treatment for facial acne. Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar followed suit, proclaiming it the “secret to better skin.” It’s not that they’re wrong—gua sha can absolutely be used to relieve acne, usually in combination with acupuncture; but all the buzz makes it seem like it’s some new-fangled technique. In reality, gua sha dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China. I have been using gua sha in my practice for many years and have seen great results in my patients in terms of relief from pain, acne, headaches, asthma, cold and flu symptoms and much more.

So what is it?

Gua sha is what it says it is: gua means to scrape or rub in Mandarin and sha means red rash. It is an ancient Chinese practice in which an instrument is used to press or scrape lubricated skin (typically at the back, neck, shoulders)  in one direction, with the goal of creating petechiae, or sha, tiny red or brown circular patches that occur due to bleeding under the skin.

Why should you do it?

The purpose of gua sha is to increase circulation in a particular area, releasing stagnation and reducing pain and inflammation. And don’t worry, the purple/pink colored marks it leaves on your body will disappear in a few days. Similar to cupping, the marks arise due to ruptured capillaries right under the skin, and they are very visible signs that you are clearing toxins clogging certain points in your body. So, really, you should take a private joy in those marks: according to Arya Nielsen, PhD, author and director of the Acupuncture Fellowship for Inpatient Care through the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Hospital,

“the transitory therapeutic petechiae produce an anti inflammatory and immune protective effect that persists for days following a single Gua sha treatment accounting for the immediate relief that patients feel from pain, stiffness; fever, chill, cough, wheeze, nausea and vomiting, etc.”

And, just like in cupping, if you do gua sha regularly, you will start to see fewer and fainter marks—a sign that you’ve cleared out all the stagnation.

Gua Sha Benefits

As I mentioned above, gua sha has been linked to myriad benefits, including relief from migraines, asthma, cold and flu, and even hepatitis. It is used to treat musculoskeletal pain and irritation as well as respiratory and internal organ issues and even emotional and sleep conditions. How does it do all this, you ask?

Pain Relief

Dr. Arya Nielsen has conducted extensive research on the physiology of gua sha. She found, in a study on stressed doctors and nurses in Essen, Germany, that there was a 400% increase in “microperfusion (surface circulation of blood) for 7.5 minutes following gua sha, and a significant increase for the full 25 minutes following treatment that was studied. Scans returned to baseline at the 2-day point. Every subject experienced a decrease or complete resolution in pain and a sense of well-being.” Interestingly, “Females showed significantly higher rates of response than males,” according to “The Effect of Gua Sha Treatment on Microcirculation of Surface Tissue: A Pilot Study in Healthy Subjects.”

Chronic Illness Relief

There are numerous other studies that confirm the effectiveness of gua sha at reducing pain—from lower back pain, to neck pain, to general myalgia. Gua sha has even proven useful in the treatment of Hepatitis B, a disease in which the liver undergoes an inflammatory breakdown over time, as gua sha temporarily upregulates the liver enzyme HO-1 (heme oxygenase-1), which “results in decreased virus replication as well as protection from oxidative damage.”

In the case of Hepatitis B and other chronic diseases, gua sha is certainly not an all-encompassing alternative treatment. However, as Dr. Nielsen elucidates, therapies like gua sha and acupuncture are critical for those times when patients cannot or will not take medication for whatever reason—either because there is no medication to treat what they’re suffering from, or because the side effects are so extreme and debilitating that it’s not necessarily worth the relief from the primary pain of the disease.

So Try It Out!

Even if you’re not suffering from a chronic illness or even from intense back pain, the wear and tear of modern daily life—especially during a pandemic—can grind you down and cause real stress on your muscles, creating harmful qi blockages and stopping you from fully experiencing your life. Have you ever had a day in which you woke up 5 minutes before a Zoom meeting, sat at your desk for 8 hours straight, and then zoned out in front of Netflix for 4 hours to decompress? If any of that sounds familiar, first of all, don’t judge yourself! Adult life in the second year of a pandemic is hard! But if you want to change, if you want to feel more energy and life force, consider gua sha.