What Is Gua Sha?
Gua sha is a traditional Chinese medical practice dating back to the early Imperial period that is making waves in modern holistic health circles. Known by different names throughout south-east Asia, the practice involves the stroking of the skin (a technique known as gua) with a smooth blunted instrument to produce light petechiae (sha).
This stroking process releases toxins from the blood and promotes metabolic cell repair by stimulating blood flow to the affected areas, offering both a medical and cosmetic treatment. Gua sha is used to treat a range of muscular injuries and chronic pain symptoms, often used in conjunction with massage, acupuncture, and heat therapy. This practice targets inflamed areas on the back, buttocks, neck, arms, legs, and even face. Gua sha is certainly versatile and new scientific research continues to highlight its effectiveness in treating a broad range of health conditions.
The earliest reference to this practice can be found in the foundational Chinese medical treatise Shanghan Lun, compiled by prominent physician Zhang Zhongjing after an epidemic swept through his hometown of Changsha (in present day Hunan province). Shanghan Lun, translating as the Treatise on Cold Damage Diseases, is one of the oldest complete clinical textbooks in the world and revolutionised Chinese medicine when it was first published in the early 3rd century.
Shanghan Lun established the “six-syndrome identification system”: Tai-Yang, Yang-Ming, Shao-Yang, Tai-Yin, Shao-Yin, and Jue-Yin, along with the associated symptoms and treatments for each type. The ingenuity of Shanghan Lun was that it addressed illness as an evolving condition unique to each patient and not as a fixed disease. For this reason, the methods outlined in this ancient medical text continue to be used in modern forms of traditional Chinese medicine.
The Chinese medical paradigm of treating cold diseases has interesting parallels with European holistic traditions as both focus on stimulating blood flow and increasing the production of white blood cells.
Although they advocate different processes–direct pressure on the skin and heat therapy—each practice produces similar results. This indicates that a unique synergy exists between these diverse cultural practices.
Harnessing the benefits of gua sha and combining it with Western medical traditions therefore offers an exciting new frontier for holistic practitioners.
How Does Gua Sha Work?
A gua sha treatment begins with the practitioner massaging oil or lotion into the targeted areas, establishing a smooth base for the instrument to glide over. Then, they will use the gua sha instrument to stroke the skin in a series of downward motions with varying pressure.
Working down the muscles and along acupuncture medians, each stroke leaves light red or purple marks as blood is released from capillaries. The distribution of these marks reveals any disruption in flow to the circulatory system, indicating where any problem areas may lie.
The end result is a series of minor bruising across the affected areas, prompting your body to begin cellular repair. Any skin bruising and minor bleeding usually disappears within a couple of days.
When treating facial areas, a much smaller and lighter gua sha instrument is used that does not leave any visible marks. This type of treatment is aimed at exfoliating, treating pigmentation, congestion, and other blemishes.
After massaging moisturiser or lotion into the skin, the gua sha instrument is used to gently stroke the exposed areas. It is advisable to start at the neck and then work up to the face, releasing tension across the entire area. This ensures that any latent toxins are flushed out from the extremities and don’t pool in the body.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Gua Sha?
This practice has been the focus of recent medical research as health experts are increasingly turning to traditional Chinese medicine. Eastern medicine offers a number of alternative methods for treating common ailments that do not rely on drugs or invasive procedures.
Gua sha, for example, offers a myriad of health benefits. The most common application of gua sha is in reducing inflammation by increasing blood circulation to areas plagued by discomfort. This is ideal for removing built up fascia from muscles and has the added side effect of targeting bloating or blemished skin. Users can also use this practice for joint pain and conditions like arthritis as the treatment promotes lymphatic drainage, allowing the body to introduce fresh blood and oxygen to damaged cells.
While research into the numerous health benefits of gua sha treatment is still in its developmental stages, the initial results are promising. The combined treatment of traditional Chinese medicinal practices and western approaches offers an innovative path forward with one 2018 scientific paper highlighting that it “is worth clinical application and promotion”.
Gua sha is well-known as a treatment for migraines and headache pain. Stress can lead to a throbbing sensation around the forehead as heat is pushed away from vital organs. A gentle head massage can alleviate such symptoms, dramatically decreasing tension and releasing trapped energy. This process also sharpens concentration as blood flow is increased to the targeted areas. A simple 5-minute treatment is enough to leave you feeling mentally sharper and refreshed.
Recent research has produced promising results in treating peripheral neuropathy: nerve damage caused by chronically high blood sugar and diabetes. One 2019 study carried out 12 consecutive sessions of gua sha, one session per week, on a group of subjects and found that treatment “significantly reduced severity of neuropathy symptoms, improved performance of sensory function, reduced peripheral artery disease, and better controlled plasma glucose”. Overall, the study concluded that gua sha therapy “was effective, safe and well tolerated by patients”.
Gua sha treatment can also offer enormous benefits to athletes, as one 2018 study established. A group of male weightlifters received 2 treatments a week over a period of 2 months. Results in this case study were measured by how effectively the subjects retained muscular intensity levels (Rating of Perceived Exertion) when performing multiple reps of snatch, and clean and jerk exercises. The researchers assessed that gua sha therapy “can facilitate weightlifting ability, reduce the RPE, and inhibit muscle injury by promoting recovery from fatigue caused by normal weightlifting training”.
For women approaching menopause and undergoing the associated conditions: insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, and hot flashes, researchers have found that gua sha therapy was “effective and safe in relieving perimenopausal symptoms and improving the quality of life in participants”. Without flooding the body with prescription drugs, gua sha can provide natural relief while also promoting better skin health and reducing signs of inflammation.
Research into the medical application of gua sha, while in its early stages, has already highlighted its cosmetic, physiological, and mental benefits. Yet this is only the beginning. This promises to be an exciting new field and there is a lot of potential for health practitioners to incorporate this traditional Chinese practice into their holistic treatment plan.
What Happens When You Use Gua Sha With Your Clearlight® Infrared Sauna?
When combined with Clearlight Infrared® Sauna technology, gua sha offers even more health benefits. While the dry heat from a sauna induces a chemical effect on the body, the use of a gua sha instrument directly impacts the skin and any tender spots beneath.
We can therefore think of these two treatments as complimentary. Whether applying gua sha during your sauna session or immediately afterwards, this process ensures that the benefits of each will be dramatically increased.
A session in a Clearlight Infrared® Sauna stimulates blood circulation, activates the lymphatic system, and accelerates cellular repair. The infrared rays of the sauna are ideal for opening the body’s pores and releasing any fat-trapped toxins. Once these waste materials are at the surface and circulating the blood-stream, a gua sha instrument is able to effectively strip them from the body.
It is amazing just how much waste can be removed by this simple process. The increased blood flow experienced during the sauna session will also allow the gua sha instrument to more efficiently detect any disruptions in the circulatory system. Spending just 20-minutes in the sauna is thus ideal for preparing the body for gua sha, multiplying the effects of both treatments.