Gua Sha Massage: 10 Things Experts Need You to Know
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You'll hear a lot of claims about the benefits of gua sha—do they hold up to scientific scrutiny? And is there any risk to this type of massage?
The promises of gua sha massage
Even if you’re not familiar with gua sha massage, you may have seen the colorful face massagers (often light pink or green in the shape of a tulip or a loose heart)—used for facial contouring.
Acupuncturist, Jenny Tu, PhD, has been offering UCLA students from the Arthur Ashe Student Health & Wellness Center gua sha massage for a number of ailments—primarily for pain management and muscle tension.
Now, from her private practice in Arcadia, California, she treats patients ranging from teens to seniors in their nineties. Gua sha was passed down to her by her family members as part of her Chinese culture and tradition.
Chiropractor, Ronald Salupo, DC, from Lake Forest, California, has implemented gua sha at his practice—even for plantar fasciitis. One of Salupo’s patients, Jill Carrigan, explains she had been in pain for several years. “Gua sha massage helped cure my plantar fasciitis symptoms in just six 30-minute sessions,” Carrigan says.
But not everyone agrees with the buzz about gua sha massage. Celebrity esthetician Renee Rouleau explains, “I feel like it’s decreasing—that ship has kind of sailed. I hardly hear about it anymore.”
What exactly is gua sha?
Developed during the Ming Dynasty, gua sha is one of many techniques that has been used for thousands of years to treat patients with traditional Chinese medicine.
“The literal translation is ‘scraping sand’ for the reddish rash that appears after a gua sha session,” explains Tu.
The technical term for the tiny red spots is petechiae—due to tiny capillaries breaking open. This “scraping” type of massage can be beneficial for your whole body—commonly applied to the neck, arms, back, legs, chest, and buttocks areas.
(You might want these tips for covering up red splotches.)
What to expect
The intensity of the massage varies depending on the area of the body being worked on.
“Traditional gua sha focuses on releasing the exterior or clearing excess heat of the body,” Tu reports.
The pressure and scraping motions are induced repeatedly to obtain the production of the tiny red spots on the skin. “Generally, one would expect to be sore and tender in the areas that are worked on with light red to purple markings for a couple of days,” Tu adds.
The specific oil used (to increase comfort level and absorption) and the shape of the gua sha tool may vary depending on the practitioner (or the one you choose for home—more on these below).
Benefits of gua sha massage
Neck and back pain
Tu sees patients responding well to gua sha treatments for dealing with musculoskeletal pain—affecting bones, joints, muscles, tendons, or ligaments. Gua sha therapy has been widely used clinically in patients with lower back pain.
A small study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that some people who had gua sha massage experienced relief from chronic neck and low back pain.
The short and long strokes help to stimulate the micro-circulation of the soft tissues—which simply means an increase in blood flow.
Chinese researchers tried gua sha on women going through menopause and found that the massage could ease issues like hot flashes, sleep issues, and mood changes, according to a 2018 review of research published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.
“Gua sha isn’t just for treating pain and injuries—some are also using it for digestive and respiratory conditions—along with lymphatic drainage,” Tu reports.
A case report published in Global Advances in Health in Medicine discusses a woman with a potential decrease in anxiety and depression symptoms due to circulation improvements from gua sha.
Is it safe?
“Gua sha is considered a very safe practice if done correctly by a professional or even by oneself,” Tu says—adding that it would be wise for someone who has not had gua sha before to seek a professional first before going it alone.
You may notice that the practice is offered interchangeably with “spooning” which is the act of using a ceramic spoon to scrape—also known as “using a coin to scrape.”
Though generally considered safe, it is not recommended in conjunction with antiplatelet or anticoagulant medications. Also, make sure sterile materials are used to avoid possible infections. Definitely discuss your interest in gua sha with your doctor before making an appointment to get the massage.
Some precautions to take
Find a skilled practitioner who has good reviews—in other words, do some research. You should not be afraid to ask questions about how many sessions this should take in order to see potential results for your specific health goals.
The practitioner should be willing to answer your questions in an initial consultation before treatments begin—and if you have any serious health conditions, consult with your medical doctor first. Tu advises patients to let their practitioner know how they are tolerating the session(s).
Doing this from home
For facial massagers—one to three times per week for five to 10 minutes is ideal. They work well with a moisturizer, like rose hips oil or a gentle face mask—though it’s not required.
With over 15,000 reviews, Baimei’s rose quartz massager and roller set is an economical option.
If you plan to treat other areas of your body from home, research the best gua sha tool for your specific need. “Make sure it’s well-rounded and fits in your hand without causing discomfort,” Tu says.
Also, remember to start out slowly—you can always apply more pressure as you go along. (For more on massage from home, check out how to reduce tension in seconds.)
Tools used for gua sha
While gua sha has changed somewhat in its application over the years, the general technique has stayed the same.
“Traditionally, gua sha tools consisted of any solid rounded object, such as buffalo horn, antelope horn, jade stones, ginger root, ceramic spoons, coins, and even your own knuckles,” explains Tu.
More recently, popular materials include rose quartz, medical grade surgical stainless steel, and plastics.
“Part of this has to do with the varying properties of the materials. For example, jade stones have cooling properties—so they are used in conditions where someone experiences inflammation or excess heat,” Tu says.
Oils for comfort
It depends on your preference and the practitioner’s—but to avoid friction, it’s best to use a generous amount of oil, lubricant, or liniment.
“Herbal liniments are used depending on the properties of the herbs,” explains Tu. “For example, some herbs have a cooling effect which would help to release exterior properties from those who have more heat symptoms in their body.”
Want to try it?
Check with your doctor before trying gua sha to make sure it’s safe for your skin and health. If you do go to a gua sha practitioner, ask plenty of questions before you start and make sure the massage goes at a pace that you’re comfortable with.
- Medicine: "Gua sha therapy for chronic low back pain."
- Global Advances in Health and Medicine: "Effect of Gua Sha and Physical Therapy on Fear Avoidance Belief Questionnaire Scores in a Patient With Chronic Cervicalgia"
- The American Journal of Chinese Medicine: "Randomized Controlled Pilot Study: Pain Intensity and Pressure Pain Thresholds in Patients with Neck and Low Back Pain Before and After Traditional East Asian 'Gua Sha' Therapy"
- Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice: "Effects of Gua Sha therapy on perimenopausal syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials"
- Mayo Clinic: "Petechiae"
- Stanford Medicine: "What is coining (Gua sha)?"
- Jenny Tu, PhD, has been offering UCLA students from the Arthur Ashe Student Health & Wellness Center
- Chiropractor, Ronald Salupo, DC, from Lake Forest, California
- Celebrity esthetician, Renee Rouleau