(Originally published as an article for Imbue Pain Relief Patch)
Since at least several hundred years B.C., people in Greece, India, China, and elsewhere have used a technique of applying friction to the skin in order to resolve pain and treat deeper medical disorders. The Greeks called it “frictioning.” The Chinese call it Gua Sha.
The technique involves using the hands, a piece of coarse cloth, or, more commonly, a ceramic spoon, a coin, a dull, thick blade, or the edge of a jar lid, to repeatedly stroke the skin until it becomes red. Virtually everyone in China (and much of the greater East Asia) knows basic Gua Sha, and parents routinely perform it on their children for colds and flus. Virtually every acupuncturist knows Gua Sha, too. Practitioners of Chinese medicine usually employ it to treat communicable diseases, conditions of internal toxicity, and to release tight tissues to alleviate pain and stiffness. Gua sha also has an extensive history of successfully treating cholera, a form of epidemic diarrhea.
Frictioning techniques were initially understood by the Greeks as counteracting an existing condition – shifting the body’s attention by causing irritation (called “counter-irritation”) or a healing crisis elsewhere in the body. The minor trauma the technique caused was thought to elicit a broader healing response by the body, which would frequently resolve whatever other issue a person was grappling with.
The Chinese understand the technique as releasing something (pathogenic factors, such cold, dampness, stagnant blood, and toxins) through the surface of the body, and invigorating local circulation. Gua means “to scrape or scratch.” Sha means a sickness or evil that is retained in the body and also its rash-like expression when Gua Sha is performed. That is, Gua Sha is the process of intentionally bringing Sha to the surface. Other terms, such as Pak Sha (“pak” means “to slap”) and Xian Sha (“xian” means “to pinch”), describe different ways of eliciting Sha.
It has been said that, “Gua Sha is to an Asian family what chicken soup is to a family in the West.” Because this practice is so ubiquitous, and so humble, it’s especially absurd that opportunists in the West have reframed this method as some sort of brand new, cutting edge medical technique, dubbing it the Graston Technique and Astym (among other monikers). What’s more, I know people who have paid large sums to receive these techniques, under the impression that they are culmination of modern Western scientific research.
For instance, the Astym website features the question, “Can’t I just do this myself?” and the response: “You can only get the results ASTYM treatment delivers from a certified ASTYM therapist…. The ASTYM system’s outstanding results can not be achieved by picking up something you have at home and rubbing it along your skin. If this worked, there wouldn’t have been any need to spend years on the research and development process.” Millions of acupuncturists and Chinese lay people would beg to differ.
Don’t get me wrong. I do think it’s worth paying a trained medical professional to help you deal with your pain. And while I’ve never received The Graston Technique or Astym from a professional, I wouldn’t be surprised if they work – because I know Gua Sha works. I have performed it on hundreds of my patients and I’ve taught workshops on it to dozens of practitioners who have then shared their success stories with me. My purpose is not to disparage these Western spin-offs, but to illuminate the true historical context and persistence of this technique. Medicines don’t stick around for over 2000 years if they don’t work!
Copyright 2012 by Peter Borten. No reproduction allowed in any form without permission.