More than a year after Michael Phelps’s bruise-dotted back thrust cupping, an alternative massage method, into the public eye, photos of marks left by another ancient therapy recently went viral on Facebook, with more than 11,000 reactions and more than 24,000 shares in a matter of days:
The photos include a female hairdresser who was treated for back pain related to spending hours on her feet. The images were posted by Hitesh Patel, a certified massage therapist based in Leicester, U.K., to warn people to avoid sedentary behaviors that cause pain in the first place.
Before the viral photos were taken, Patel used an ancient Chinese technique called gua sha (or “scraping”), which he first encountered about 15 years ago when traditional physical therapy failed to cure the tennis elbow he’d developed as a result of his massage work. After a friend performed gua sha, Patel’s quick recovery inspired him to research the technique. (Because gua sha is a skill that’s passed from generation to generation, Patel says, he didn’t receive any special certification to perform it.) Now 43, Patel spends most of his working hours practicing gua sha on clients.
WTF Is Gua Sha?
The technique involves scraping oil-lubricated skin by pressing a blunt-edged tool, which comes in different shapes, sizes, and materials, along the muscles. The process is intended to loosen muscles in areas where you’re experiencing pain, such as the back and shoulders, although it technically can be performed anywhere on the body — even on the face, according to Patel.
The red marks that result from treatment show where blood flow previously stagnated and pooled, Patel says.
He adds that in his experience, people with poor circulation typically experience the most redness, which tends to disappear in three to seven days — but that the practice doesn’t always leave a mark.
How Much Does It Hurt?
Although Patel considers gua sha to be more aggressive than cupping and massage, because it reaches even deeper tissues, he insists the therapeutic treatment isn’t (always) as painful as it looks. Patel sends clients home with strict orders to practice prescribed stretches, drink lots of water, and take a bath to promote healing.
Does Gua Sha Actually Work?
Although quality research on gua sha is sparse, purveyors believe it could work by creating artificial trauma that triggers an immune-system response, and increasing blood flow to muscles and tissue to facilitate healing, according to Robert Glatter, M.D., a physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwell Health’s Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
Some studies on gua sha seem to support the therapy’s ability to reduce people’s pain, but their results could be skewed by the placebo effect, according to Dr. Glatter. “There’s no data that proves it’s truly more helpful than simply applying heat or ice or taking medication like ibuprofen,” he says.
Is Gua Sha Dangerous?
Gua sha treatments can cause various adverse effects: If your practitioner scrapes your skin with an unsanitary tool, it could set you up for bacterial infections that require antibiotics — something Dr. Glatter has seen before in his practice.
What’s more, excessive pressure on the muscles could tear the membrane that covers them. Although he doesn’t see it often in his practice, Dr. Glatter says this kind of tissue trauma can potentially lead to muscle swelling and rhabdomyolysis, aka “rhabdo,” a rare but life-threatening condition in which muscles release a protein that can overtax the kidneys, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. (It’s the same freak thing that can plague newbies who jump right into spin.)
If you experience rhabdo symptoms after undergoing gua sha, such as post-treatment pain that worsens, fever, dizziness, or pressure, warmth, or increasing redness in the treated area, Dr. Glatter says to seek medical treatment ASAP.
Bottom Line: Should I Try It?
Gua sha is contraindicated for women who are pregnant and people who take blood thinners, are prone to thinning skin or varicose veins, or have a history of stroke or epilepsy, Patel says. But that’s not to say it’s bad news for all.
“For people who don’t want to take traditional medications and are searching for alternative or complimentary methods of pain relief, it’s a reasonable thing to try,” Dr. Glatter says of gua sha that’s performed under sanitary conditions, ideally with one-time-use tools. “But more research is needed to determine whether it’s truly going to help in the long run.”
It’s why he prefers patients first try science-backed solutions such as stretching, exercise, and/or physical therapy, which may take more effort than getting an alternative massage, but are more likely to deliver long-term pain relief.
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