Whether it's your neck, back, shoulders, arms, or legs, muscle pain can be a real pain in the …. well you know! We stretch them, rub them, massage them, ice them, heat them. Everything and anything to try to get rid of the aches and pains that are keeping you from living your best life. But have you ever thought about using Gua Sha for muscle pain?
What is Gua Sha?
I know the first question you’re asking right now is “What the heck is Gua Sha?” I’m so glad you asked. Gua sha translates to “scraping of sand”. It is one of the many incredibly effective forms of Traditional Chinese Medical treatment, along with acupuncture, cupping, tuina massage, and herbal formulas.
Gua sha dates back to Ming Dynasty, roughly 700 years, and is as much a technique as it is a tool. The tool itself has taken many forms over the years and continues to evolve. From Chinese ceramic soup spoons to obsidian, jade or rose quartz stones, even carved bamboo or stainless steel scraping tools have been used to perform the Gua Sha treatments.
The scraper serves as a hardened extension of the hand and fingers that can be used with precision over small or large areas of muscle tissue.
Why would we need to be Scrapped?
The simple answer is, scraping helps to mobilize soft tissue. By gently scraping over the surface of the skin, the four layers of tissue are all effectively stimulated. Try to visualize a four-layer cake. Skin is on the top, then fat, then fascia, then muscle.
It's really the third layer where the problem lies. Our fascia is continually growing every second of every day. Its fibres slowly branch out like a never-ending spider web. As we move our bodies throughout the day, we constantly tear apart tiny layers of that web.
The constant tear and rebuild process within the fascia is necessary for the proper functionality of the muscles and joints. It's why physical movement is so important. Each night when you go to sleep, your body is still for 6-8 hours. However, on the inside, your spider web of fascia that connects every structure in your body is constantly growing and building upon itself.
When you wake up in the morning you instinctively stretch your arms above your head. This gentle stretch is enough to tear apart the minute new layer of fascia that grew overnight. Now imagine an illness that had you bedridden for weeks or months. How stiff and dysfunctional would you be?
It’s no different than when you break an arm. You immobilize the arm with a cast and sling for six to eight weeks as you wait for the bone to heal. But all that time the fascia in your shoulder is growing denser and thicker. Two months later you take off the cast to reveal a nice solid bone and unfortunately a dysfunctional shoulder that now needs attention.
Where added layers of fascia build-up, it acts almost like glue between layers of soft tissue. Where there is more glue there is less movement, and where there is less movement, the body creates more glue.
It is a negative feedback loop that very quickly can lead to pain and mechanical dysfunction.
What does Scrapping do?
By applying specific mobilizing pressure to the surface of the tissue, the scrapper slowly breaks down built-up excess fascial connections. These excess fascial structures, known as adhesions, are the locations where the additional tissue build-up has led to functional changes in the underlying muscles.
When fascial tissue builds up between the muscles, the muscles can’t slide over one another. When muscles can’t slide, they cant move the joints. When joints don’t move, they become filled with debris on the inside and covered with adhesion on the outside.
All this results in irritation, inflammation, and eventual degeneration. Once again this is why moving the body in dynamic ways such as during Qigong practice, is so important.
How can you use Gua Sha for Muscle Pain?
Gua Sha is a simple way to maintain optimal functioning of the muscles and joints of the body. With just a few minutes of attention a day, you can easily perform a little self-health treatment in the privacy of your own home. This can help you to avoid unnecessary trips to the massage therapist, osteopath, physio… you name it!.
A Gua Sha session begins with the application of oil on the skin of the area being scrapped. Any body oil will do. I personally make my own oil from organic cold-pressed olive oil that I infuse with the organic lavender I grow in my backyard. Olive oil has great anti-inflammatory properties, plus lavender is a natural relaxant. The oil allows the tool to slide easily over the skin.
The next step is to assess the health of the area that needs attention. Using the concave side (curved in) of the Gua Sha, gently press it against the skin at a slight angle and drag it over the area in question. Healthy soft tissue should feel…. well… SOFT! Problems areas will have a gravelly feel as you scrap over them. They will often even make an audible sound like there are pebbles under the skin.
Any area that feels “gravelly” or can be flicked or plucked almost like a tight rope definitely needs some attention.
The next step is to sheer away some of that built-up glue. For this step, you flip the Gua Sha over and use the convex side (curved out). Think of the area you are working on as a scratch and win ticket. Only the prize underneath is pain-free muscles! Will a little more pressure, scrape away at the fascia using a similar motion as you would on a scratch and win ticket.
Always be sure to go a little easier over boney areas and make sure you don’t press hard enough to break the skin. Remember your goal is to break down the fascia beneath. Where you have achieved this, you will start to see petechial hemorrhaging develop. This will look like tiny red dots of blood under the skin that will slowly grow into a distinct shape or pattern over the surface of the skin.
Where the tissue is healthy and functioning, the skin will turn slightly red temporarily and then go back to normal.
After a few minutes of scrapping, flip the Gua Sha back over to the concave side and once again survey the area and check your work. If you still detect some gravel, flip back over and give the area a bit more work.
Continue this back and forth process for 5 - 10 minutes max per area. Remember less is more. You don’t have to get every piece of gravel out in the first treatment. Gua Sha is something that can and should be done on a regular basis. But the last thing you want to do is poke a cut. So do a few minutes of work on day one and then wait until the tissue is completely pain-free to the touch before another session on the same spot.
If it’s still sore the next day or the day after, give it more time. There are always more areas that you can explore and treat. You didn’t build up all those adhesions in one day and you won’t be taking them out in one either. That being said, with only a few minutes a day in front of the TV, you can begin using Gua Sha for muscle pain as the latest healing tool in your medicine cabinet… Give it a try!
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