What are the benefits of Gua sha?
Would you love it if someone explained Gua sha to you?
Here's the host of the Gua sha Show, Clive Witham, doing just that!
This week he brings his expert knowledge to the benefits of Gua sha and looks at the two main effects which underlie all the others - the increased circulatory and the anti-inflammatory effects. He gives you tips about how to think about Gua sha when thinking about health and illness and he looks at recent research in China about exactly what conditions Gua sha is used for.
Gua sha studies include 185 diseases and disorders in the body and include pain or discomfort, respiratory infections, feverish conditions, gastrointestinal problems, backache, sciatica, headaches, migraines, stiff neck, frozen shoulder, tennis elbow, digestive problems, constipation, insomnia, trigeminal neuralgia, dizziness, neuralgia, diarrea, ulcerative colitis, acne, hemorrhoids and hepatitis B.
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Here's the show:
Hello and it's great that you're here listening to the Gua sha show!
I've been doing Gua sha for a very long time and I've seen some of what it can do - so in this episode we're going to explore a few ways that Gua sha benefits the body. When I was pondering this topic I quickly realised that I'd better separate the benefits of Facial Gua sha and Gua sha because there are some issues with Facial Gua sha that need to be addressed separately not because it's different but because of the perceived differences and the general misunderstandings. So this episode is focused on Gua sha in a general sense and in its most common usage on the body and facial Gua sha benefits and those connected to beauty is in another episode.
Okay let's start with a little research for this episode. I thought before I launch into what I think are the benefits of Gua sha, I'll have a look at what the internet thinks are the benefits of Gua sha and see what's happening online. This is usually something I avoid when it comes to Gua sha because. Boy oh boy. There's some strange stuff out there. And sure enough. It didn't disappoint. Everything from Tourette's syndrome to Cellulite. So in this episode let's stick with what the research says and what my clinical experience suggests about what Gua sha really benefits. and let's leave the other stuff where we found it on the internet.
You may or may not be surprised to hear that reports have been published looking at Gua sha and its effect on 185 diseases and disorders in the body. This is from a report from last year. It's a huge list and some of the most common are cervical spondylosis (wear & tear of the spinal discs at the neck), frozen shoulder, Lumbar intervertebral disc herniation, fibrositis - pain in the connective tissue structures (including neck, shoulder, waist, back), limb pain (including neck, shoulder, back, waist, and legs), Knee arthritis, insomnia, facial nerve palsy, migraine headache, dizziness, acne, angina, coronary heart disease, muscle strain. As of the end of 2019, there were 1,258 studies available - most of them in China.
So while just the act of publishing a study doesn't necesarily mean that Gua sha has a benefit on what is being looked at, because when you sift through some of these, some of them aren't that great. But they do show you that there is a beneficial action to Gua sha and there is a lot of interest in narrowing it down.
After the publication of my first book, the Book of Oriental Medicine, I'd come to realise that there was a lot more to say about one of the themes I had written about in the book - which was Gua sha. And it was something I had noticed in the clinic. I treat people with quite complicated things happening in their bodies and who often suffer chronic symptoms and one thing I noted was that when I did Gua sha, there was often a profound reaction to one or more than one symptom. So that's what brought me down the Gua sha road and here I am still walking on it.
Now there's something important to get your head around. Watch out when you say Gua sha is for this and for that. Do that too often and it's going to bite you in your seated regions because someone comes in. They have neck pain. It looks super easy. They turn their head and grimace and you can see what's wrong. You scrape away like you're doing a intricate oil painting. You finish up and you're so confident that you almost want to be a barber and show them the back of their neck with a mirror so they can give you an approving nod at your artistry.
And then what happens?
Nothing. It fixed nothing.
Still the same pain. Same place.
And this happens.
So why does this happen? Because the origin of the discomfort in the neck isn't where you think it is. The neck is the symptom but the pattern which is causing this discomfort lies in another place. Maybe in the back. Maybe the shoulder. Maybe an internal issue. There are lots of possibilities. So always remember that the body is a 3 dimensional living organism which is working at a dizzying speed on so many levels and in so many micro-environments. So, and I speak from umteen experiences, don't fall ino the "Gua sha treats..." trap.
Because it doesn't.
Gua sha treats the person and the person's body then either doesn't like what you did, in which case it doesn't do anything or it likes what you did and goes and fixes something - sometimes some random thing that you didn't realise someone was suffering from - So how's your headache? No, no change there...but I've stopped eating chocolate. (What?) Turns out she was a chocoholic. So the body is on its way to fix the headache but took a detour to sort out something else first.
This is actually along the lines of the ancient chinese and they held that within the blood lies Zhong qi which is the natural intelligence of the body. It has the blueprints of how everything should look and tries to restore the body whenever it can.
Incidently I've seen all kinds of crazy stuff of what people do that probably gives your treatment little chance of suceeding. Imagine what's going on inside your body if you drink a liter of coke a day? Because people do. I recall one response to my open-mouthed face clearly.. "It's okay, it's diet coke". Sometimes it's a losing battle.
Anyway let's look at two of the most important benefits of Gua sha which I've summaried into nice bitesized chunks and then you'll see why there are so many studies looking at diseases and illnesses.
It can change your local blood circulation.
So this is what Gua sha is all about. And that's the also the reason you sometimes see those red marks which are sha or sometimes referred to as "Petechiae", although it's not necessary for it to appear for a blood circulation increase. So this all happens in the capilliary tissue bed which the ancient Chinese called something else - luo mai - and Gua sha is supposed to release a molecule called nitric oxide, which dilates the blood vessels and increases blood flow. Which again is built into the natural theories of how tissue can be blocked. You just have take a walk on some of the paths around me and see how the plants have reclaimed them over the winter. You can get through but it's more difficult. The circulation of these paths is restricted. And if you leave them they'll be totally overgrown and impassable.
So the idea with the action of Gua sha is that there was an obstruction to blood flow within the tissue, it was treated and then that obstruction is then lessened or removed. The obstuction could be in the same place as, or it could be the other side of the body to, the symptoms you have. Maybe the obstruction was in your back but your syymptom was in your stomach.
It can have an anti-inflammatory effect.
This is supposed to be due to an increase in enzyme activity in the body. And there is one in particular called heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) which is an anti-oxidant and protects cells against damaging agents. It is usually at low levels but can be highly upregulated and has been in studies with Gua sha.
And again this is nothing new to Gua sha. Gua sha has traditionally been used to treat excess heat conditions with a history of treating difficult-to-treat febrile diseases and is used to treat acute and chronic hepatitis.
And this is essentially the action which has been hugely beneficial to people suffering from chronic low-level inflammatory conditions which normally have their main symptoms as pain moving around the body and chronic tiredness. The ancient chinese saw inflamation as a counter flow. Imagine you're driving down a one way street and then you hit a traffic jam because someone is actually trying to drive up the street in the wrong direction in front. People are honking their horns, jumping out of their cars, swearing, making all sorts of random seemingly impolite gestures with their hands, the engines are heating up. Actually that sounds like just a normal day in Barcelona. But this is what inflamation is. It's when everything should be going one way but it isn't. So inflamation is part of the restriction of circulation.
So with this knowledge of some of the benefits - what are they going to do you may be wondering? Well these are going to be the effect which will have a major impact on pain or discomfort. Neck and back pain are the conditions which often come up in studies where Gua sha has a positive effect on the outcome but there's so much more. Just think about it, a technique which can improve circulation and reduce inflammation. How many problems in the body would benefit from these two actions?
Just listen to the most common conditions studied...
Pain or discomfort in general
Upper respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis
lower back pain
So you can perhaps see that the benefit of Gua sha isn't actually against those conditions but in creating the internal conditions which will allow the body to moderate the patterns which are causing them.
So if someone said to you Gua sha is great for headaches. It's totally meaningless unless you understand these actions of Gua sha. It wouldn't make any sense why scraping the skin on your shoulders would make any change in the symptoms you're feeling in your head.
And if I were to sprinkle some of the ideas of the ancient Chinese on to this knowledge and you could see how they mapped the blood vessel system, how they understood the deep connection of fascia and tissue beds with how the body functions, how the principles of the natural world allow us to understand the action of Gua sha without concerning ourselves with anything other than the plant on your window sill or the tree in your garden.