What is Gua Sha & Soft Tissue Mobilization?

What are Gua Sha and soft tissue mobilization? Both are treatments used to treat soft tissue injury and as routine therapy to reduce pain and inflammation.

What is Gua Sha and Soft Tissue Mobilization exactly?

Soft Tissue Mobilization, which includes a wide variety of treatments including myofascial release, cupping and various forms of massage, is the application of stretching, scraping and pressure to relax and stretch muscles in order to treat soft tissue adhesions and damage. Gua Sha, an ancient form of soft tissue mobilization, is a traditional Chinese healing practice which involves scraping the skin with a smooth-edged tool while applying pressure in order to stretch and break up dense, rigid muscle tissue, relax tension, lengthen the fascia and enhance circulation.(1) Like other forms of soft tissue mobilization, Gua Sha is mainly used to treat soft tissue injuries and as a routine therapy to reduce pain and inflammation.

Gua Sha Tools 2

How Gua Sha Works

Gua Sha functions similarly to other the methodologies of traditional Chinese medicine – much like acupuncture , the treatment creates a physiological response that stimulates different systems throughout the body, encouraging them to work together synergistically. The scraping and pressure of the edged tool create marks known as petechiae, similar to Cupping, by triggering our Langerhans’ cells in the epidermis and dermal dendritic cells in the dermis, which together determine the body’s proper immune response to damage.(2,3) They scan the microbial environment around the petechiae, and determine the proper reaction – which is for our body to heal.(4) This triggers a process known as haemolysis, in which red blood cells in the region with the petechiae are destroyed in order to release their contents. This floods the area with many beneficial chemicals and a reduction in inflammatory cytokine production, resulting in anti-inflammatory and pain reducing effects.(5, 6) Gua Sha also increases microcirculation in the areas treated, expediting the removal of waste toxins and increasing the flow of endogenous endorphins and norepinephrine to the region, further reducing pain and discomfort.(7)

Gua Sha vs. IASTM - What’s the difference?

Over the last few decades as acupuncture has become more accepted in Western medicine, Gua Sha has as well. The practice became even more widespread after athlete David Graston developed Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization (or IASTM). IASTM was inspired by Gua Sha and years of medical research performed alongside doctors, physical therapists and athletes. Using a specially designed long, round-edged tool, IASTM produces a mobilizing effect on muscles, scar tissue, adhesions and other myofascial injuries. It can produce the same results as Gua Sha, however studies have shown that IASTM offers more significant improvements to range of motion and flexibility. It is also more efficient at reducing recovery time from injuries.(8) So are there any differences between Gua Sha and IASTM? Only the tool used and general goal of treatment – while IASTM is generally used to treat sports injuries, expedite muscular recovery and treat deeper muscle groups, Gua Sha is typically used to treat pain, inflammation and stiffness closer to the surface of the skin. 

What is the Graston Technique?

In addition to the unique tool for IASTM, David Graston also developed a special technique for using the tool to both treat injuries and break down the fascial restrictions that typically accompany them. Known as the Graston Technique, the practice involves using cross-friction massage to introduce micro-trauma to an injured area, thereby initiating the body’s healing process.(9, 10) The technique is used to target deep muscular issues, especially in the lower back, upper back, shoulder and thigh, and also helps further enhance range of motion and function of the myofascial system.(10) For these reasons, both the Graston Technique and IASTM have become very popular with athletes and physical therapists. Both have become commonplace in sports rehabilitation and are also used for athletic training purposes, as they also help maintain myofascial health.

Health Benefits of Gua Sha and IASTM

The benefits of Gua Sha and IASTM cannot be overstated. Though they are excellent as standalone treatments, their effectiveness is enhanced when paired with acupuncture. Their ability to naturally reduce pain and inflammation, while expediting recovery from injuries and enhancing circulation, works in tandem with acupuncture’s capacity to flood the body with beneficial endogenous chemicals and to distribute them rapidly. This process can also support Gua Sha and IASTM’s ability to lengthen the fascia and improve range of motion. They are also used to commonly treat headaches, migraines, stiff neck, lower back pain, sinusitis, the common cold and musculoskeletal injuries.

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  1. Chu, E. C. P., Wong, A. Y. L., Sim, P., & Krüger, F. (2021, August). Exploring scraping therapy: Contemporary views on an ancient healing – a review. Journal of family medicine and primary care. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8483130/  
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