Gua sha

Gua sha is an important hands-on medical treatment that has been used throughout Asia for centuries. Gua means ‘to rub’ or ‘press-stroke’. Sha is a term that describes the blood congestion in a surface tissue that accumulates in areas where the patient may experience stiffness or pain, sha is also the term for the little red dots that are raised from applying Gua sha.

When gua press-stroking is applied in repeated even strokes, sha appears as small red dots called ‘petechiae’ and the pain immediately shifts. In minutes the small red dots fade into blended redness. The sha disappears totally in two to three days after treatment. The colour of sha and the rate of fading can indicate important information about a patient’s condition. Pain relief lasts even after the sha is completely gone.

The benefits of Gua sha are numerous. It resolves spasms and pain, and promotes normal circulation of blood and fluids to the muscles, tissues, and organs directly beneath the area that is treated, as seen in Gua sha’s immediate effect on coughing and wheezing. Using the language of Chinese medicine it dredges the channels, releases the exterior, resolves blood stagnation, clears heat, disseminates fluids, tonifies blood, warms and cools as it is appropriate. Western research has shown that Gua sha causes a four-fold increase in microcirculation of surface tissue, increases up-regulation of the genetic expression of heme oxygenase-1, stimulates the immune system and can reduce inflammation.

The patient experiences immediate changes in stiffness and pain with increased mobility. Because Gua sha mimics sweating, it can help to resolve fever. Gua sha cools the patient who feels too warm, warms the patient who feels too cold, while relaxing tension and reducing anxiety.

Acupuncturists and practitioners of traditional East Asian medicine consider applying Gua sha for any illness and condition where there is pain or discomfort, for instance upper respiration and digestive disharmonies, and any condition where touch palpation indicates the presence of sha. Gua sha is often done in combination with acupuncture for problems that acupuncture alone cannot address.

After treatment the patient is advised to keep the area protected from wind, cold and direct sun until the sha fades. They are also encouraged to drink plenty of water and eat moderately.

(Adapted from Nilsen, A., 2013. Gua sha. A traditional technique for modern practice. Churchill Livingstone.)