Not Just for Your Face: How Gua Sha Massage Relieves Aches and Pain

Gua sha massage has taken the beauty world by storm. But did you know that this traditional treatment is founded in acupuncture?

Woman getting a gua sha massage by a masseuse

You might have seen beauty influencers touting the benefits of facial massages using a rubbing technique called gua sha massage on YouTube videos and other social media channels.

While the West has only recently discovered gua sha massage, this ancient technique founded in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is about much more than anti-ageing treatments and reducing puffiness. You may even recall childhood memories of seeing an auntie or uncle coming back from a local healer with red marks on their backs after a gua sha massage session.   

The treatment is also called scraping or coining. Not only is gua sha practised in China and Malaysia, it’s also popular in Indonesia, where it’s known as kerokan. What makes gua sha massage effective, and how can you start using it? 

What Is Gua Sha Massage?

Large bone scraper tool being used during a gua sha acupuncture treatment
Gua sha massage can roughly be translated as “scraping away illness” and can be performed at home.

Gua sha massage is an ancient technique of pain relief and remedy for numerous illnesses that are still practised today. TCM physician Kong Teck Chuan agrees that the practice of rubbing areas of the body with rounded sides of a stone for pain relief could have developed as early as the palaeolithic era when humans began using stone tools. The earliest formal mention of the massage as an emergency treatment for illness was found in a manuscript of Chinese medicine from over 3,000 years ago.

How gua sha massage works 

The idea behind this massage is to rub specific surfaces of the skin, following certain Du (posterior) meridians (du mai, 督脉), around the neck and upper back area. The tool used is usually hard, smooth and flat with a rounded edge. It’s made from wood, animal bone, jade, rose quartz, or any other material that shares these qualities. 

To facilitate smooth rubbing that glides with different pressures being applied, the skin’s surface is first moisturised and lubricated with oil or emollient. Although the word “scraping” is typically used to describe the gua sha technique, there is no breaking of the skin, wounding or deep bruising.

Gua sha massage is done in such a way that it results in microperfusion or surface circulation of blood. It appears as tiny red dots on the skin’s surface referred to as petechiae (light bruising). “Gua sha helps improve blood circulation to dissipate Blood Stasis, expel Wind, and clear Heat,” summarises Physician Kong.

Smiling woman with closed eyes using facial gua sha jade tool
You might have heard of gua sha massage from beauty gurus, but it is based on an ancient technique within acupuncture.

Why is gua sha massage effective? 

While its exact mechanism is still under study, most researchers studying the efficacy of gua sha and TCM practitioners agree that a likely explanation involves the ability of the petechiae to induce the dispersal of Blood Stasis, and the encouragement of fresh oxygenated blood to freely flow in the body.

In the mid 2000s, Western researchers began taking a further interest in gua sha. A small study with 11 subjects revealed a 400% increase in microperfusion following a gua sha session. All of them reported a decrease in pain and an increase in overall wellbeing.

A Harvard study with animal models using mice supports the claim that gua sha upregulates the gene expression of heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1), an enzyme with antioxidant and cell-protecting properties. This boosts the body’s own immune system, with anti-inflammatory effects. 

Illnesses and conditions addressed by gua sha massage 

Gua sha is commonly used in TCM for addressing Liver conditions such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C. It encourages immunomodulatory effects through its action on the HO-1 enzyme.

This technique is also effective at relieving neck pain, back pain, overall body soreness, migraines, fever, gastritis, mastitis and other inflammatory conditions. Studies show a marked decrease in bodily pain such as chronic back pain when patients are treated with gua sha massage and other modern Western medicine therapies versus Western medicine therapies alone.

For women specifically, benefits include statistically significant results in improving serum levels in perimenopausal women where hormone levels fluctuate drastically.

In the health and beauty industry, a gentler form of the massage on the face promotes better circulation and lymphatic drainage. 

For the best results, you can visit a TCM healthcare practitioner who can perform a gua sha massage on you upon evaluation of your symptoms and ailments. However, it can also be done at home.

Purchasing a gua sha tool

Different gua sha tools and soap on a face towel
Choose a tool that suits the area of your body that you want to perform gua sha on. For example, a roller is usually used for the face while a scraper is for the body.

You can purchase a gua sha massage tool from most retail outlets today, or even online. But some household items like the rounded-edge handle of a spoon or a large coin would work just fine.

In TCM, stone materials are related to specific goals you might want to achieve. For example, using rose quartz can benefit your immune system while strengthening your cardiovascular system. Jade cools down the body and gets rid of toxins. 

Before starting, apply a generous amount of lubricating ointment or emollient on your skin. This is to prevent rubbing that is too rough. If you are on blood thinners or are diabetic, be sure to first check with your doctor before a session. 

How to Perform a Gua Sha Massage  

For gua sha massage that focuses on your back’s Du meridians, you may ask for a family member’s help. For parts of the body that are sore such as your arms or legs, you may be able to reach the problem area yourself. Be sure to first begin rubbing perpendicular to the muscle fibres to help loosen muscle knots. Follow this with rubbing along the muscles to help smooth out and stretch out the fibres, allowing for fresh blood to flood the cells.

Like other TCM modalities, gua sha massage is not meant to be a standalone treatment. It’s to be complemented with a healthy lifestyle. Supplement with herbs and foods that support overall health like ginseng (ren shen, 人参) and pure chicken essence. As always, eat a balanced nutritious diet, and engage in regular exercise.

Gua sha massage is yet another TCM tool at your disposal for healing and health using your body’s own defences. Think of it as an assistive spark plug for your body’s machine. Be sure to follow up by consulting with your local TCM practitioner to find out if it is suitable for you and to get the best that gua sha can offer.

References

  1. Pacific College of Health and Science. The Science of Gua Sha.  [Accessed 23 July 2022] 
  2. Brazilian Journal of Pain. 2019. Gua-sha: application and therapeutic results in musculoskeletal pain situations. Systematic review.  [Accessed 23 July 2022] 
  3. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Why Gua Sha Might Be Good for You. [Accessed 23 July 2022] 
  4. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2018. Effects of Gua Sha therapy on perimenopausal syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. [Accessed 23 July 2022] 
  5. ScienceofBeauty.net. 2021. Ask A Dermatologist: Do Gua Sha Facials Really Work?  [Accessed 23 July 2022] 
  6. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2019. Gua Sha therapy for chronic low back pain: A randomized controlled trial.  [Accessed 23 July 2022] 
  7. World Scientific. Introduction to Gua Sha Therapy.  [Accessed 23 July 2022] 

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