World Wide Wellness: How Gua Sha Can Get You Through Flu Season
by Catherine Morris | September 30, 2020, updated about 1 month ago
Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the world's oldest healing arts, and it's also been around in the West long enough for people to be familiar with acupuncture, cupping, and Chinese herbalism. There's one branch of TCM that might have you scratching your head (and other parts of your body) though—gua sha.
What is gua sha? The clue's in the name—'gua' meaning scrape, and 'sha' meaning sediment or toxins. Gua sha practitioners drag blunt tools (usually jade or stone scrapers) across the skin in long strokes to increase blood flow which, in turn, eases any areas of tension and reduces inflammation.
Why Try Gua Sha?
Gua sha can be performed on almost all areas of the body, but is commonly used on muscle tissue—particularly the back, shoulders, and neck. Although known in the West primarily as a way to ease muscle pain and stiffness, gua sha has its roots as a protective home therapy, commonly used by Chinese families to treat everything from colds to allergies.
Dr Peter Tsang, who offers gua sha as part of his TCM practice at Quantum Holistic Health, remembers his grandmother giving him the treatment when he was younger, whenever he caught a cold or a flu. She would use a wide ceramic spoon, applying it to his back to clear his lung meridian and strengthen his immune system. Dr Tsang says—
“Gua sha can treat a lot of illnesses. It is also a defensive mechanism—how we defend ourselves against the external environment. A main theme of Chinese medicine is prevention and then healing. Gua sha strengthens the protective qi. If you have a strong housekeeper you do not have things invading your body.”
Heading into flu season, gua sha could help you fend off viruses and other bugs that love to attack the respiratory system, according to one study on mice which showed it reduced inflammation in the lungs.
In today's era of almost-constant screen time, gua sha is a proven remedy for 'text neck' and back pain, making it a good idea for those of us who spend most of their waking hours hunched over a computer.
Another popular form of gua sha in the West is as a facial treatment. Shortly after being introduced, the practice caught on as a facial anti-aging massage. Devotees claim it reduces puffiness and wrinkles by encouraging drainage in the lymphatic system.
Gua Sha During and After
Gua sha can look a little intimidating. Patients are frequently left with red marks and bruising from the treatment, excluding treatments applied to the face, as it's much gentler in that area. Although the rash-like marks generally disappear after a few days, there's no getting around it—gua sha looks painful.
Looks can be deceiving according to Dr Tsang, who says it's actually rarely sore—“Most of the time it is not painful at all. It is only painful if the gua sha is too aggressive or the area being treated has lots of stuck energy. If a person is very sensitive to it, that is a sign they are not as healthy as they should be.”
Before being scraped, the skin is gently massaged and lubricated with oil. The force applied varies, according to Dr Tsang, who explains—“In Chinese medicine, we talk about a deficiency or an excess. We use gentle pressure when it is a deficiency, like a lack of energy or blood. When there is stagnant qi or blood stasis, it needs to be a bit more aggressive.”
Dr Tsang's gua sha sessions usually last 30 minutes and he makes his treatment room as comfortable as possible, playing soothing waterfall sounds and encouraging clients to relax and enjoy the experience.
“Treatment gets better results when you have a relaxing atmosphere. People are more mindful, they focus on healing and calming themselves down. Most of [my clients] feel better instantly. They think it feels really good and they say things like 'I wish I had tried this earlier'”
Some patients have a one-off session, others regularly schedule gua sha to maintain their health. Dr Tsang says if you see dark red or purple marks from the treatment, that's generally a sign that you need further work and explains—“This is a detoxing process. When you scrape the redness comes out and the colour shows your health. A pale colour or normal colour is okay, but dark red or purple means there is lots of blood stagnation.”
Gua sha is mostly well-tolerated but shouldn't be performed on broken or infected skin, and is not advisable for pregnant women. Anyone on blood-thinning medications should also avoid gua sha. If you've any concerns, speak with your medical team before giving it a try.
If you're interested in gua sha, or any Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies, reach out to Which Doctor's network of TCM specialists today to find out if treatments such as acupuncture, cupping, or gua sha can help you.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.