The Nuance

Should I Be Doing Gua Sha?

The traditional Chinese therapy may not be a beauty elixir, but it is promising for overall health

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
4 min readFeb 28, 2019

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Credit: Julianna Nazarevska/Getty Images

Every week, the Nuance will go beyond the basics, offering a deep and researched look at the latest science and expert insights on a buzzed-about health topic.

FFrom acupuncture to aromatherapy, many forms of traditional Chinese medicine have found fans in the West. One of the newly popular practices is gua sha — also known as scraping, spooning, and coining — which is a kind of focused skin massage.

Typically, a gua sha practitioner uses a rigid, round-edged instrument to “press-stroke” one section of a person’s lubricated skin over and over again, says Arya Nielsen, a gua sha researcher and assistant clinical professor of family medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This massaging causes tiny capillaries in the skin to leak blood, which produces some vivid but temporary birthmark-like bruises known as petechiae (which, by the way, is the medical term for a hickey).

Nielsen’s research shows the skin aggravation that results from gua sha produces a surge in surface blood circulation. As these blood cells are reabsorbed, she says, an enzyme called heme oxygenase-1 is created, and this seems to result in some anti-inflammation and “immune protective” effects. She says gua sha has been linked to the reduction of pain, muscle stiffness, and illness symptoms like nausea and fever. There’s also evidence that gua sha can treat some organ disorders — namely liver inflammation related to hepatitis.

One of the best gua sha studies to date, albeit a small one, appeared in the journal Pain Medicine in 2011. A team of German researchers recruited 48 people with chronic neck pain and split them into two groups. One group received a 20-minute gua sha treatment. The other was treated with a heating pad for the same amount of time.

One of the big challenges in studying gua sha (and related therapies like acupuncture) is that it’s difficult to develop a sham procedure to use as a basis for comparison. Rather than create a fake gua sha treatment, researchers used the heating pad intervention because it is “well accepted” as a pain intervention in…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.