What Is Scraping Therapy? A Complete Guide

Scraping therapy, also known as Gua Sha, is a culturally important treatment in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It involves using a tool with smooth edges to scrape the skin, creating redness known as ‘sha.’ Gua Sha has been used in TCM for hundreds of years to treat ailments including pain, inflammation, and fever. Its use has now expanded into alternative medicine salons and beauty practices worldwide. Here, we’ll discuss what scraping therapy is, how it works, its benefits and risks, and what to expect from your first session.

What is scraping therapy?

Scraping therapy is a TCM technique that aims to boost immune function, improve blood circulation, ease muscle tension, and offer pain relief for chronic pain. It is a type of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization — an intervention that uses specialized tools to manipulate soft tissues. Practitioners traditionally used to scrape the skin of their patients using tools made of jade, buffalo horn, or similar materials.

This scraping action creates redness that indicates increased blood flow to the area. Gua Sha can be used alongside other complementary therapies, including acupuncture or dry needling, massage, or natural supplements such as CBD products.

How scraping therapy works

Gua Sha is a type of manual therapy that aims to stimulate the lymphatic system and improve blood circulation. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is also believed that muscles contain trapped toxins that need to be massaged out with techniques such as scraping therapy. Here is a step-by-step breakdown of a typical scraping session:

  1. Lubrication. The practitioner applies lubricating oil, such as massage lotion, to your skin. This helps reduce friction so the scraping tool can move smoothly over the treatment area.
  2. Tool selection. The practitioner selects a smooth-edged tool made of jade, buffalo horn, or another material. The size and shape of the selected scraping tool are based on the area being treated.
  3. Scraping. Gently but firmly, the practitioner scrapes the tool along your skin in specific patterns or along meridian pathways. In TCM, meridians are strings connecting acupuncture points along which energy flows throughout the body. The scraping motion creates friction, causing minor trauma to the surface of your skin.
  4. Redness (sha). Redness begins to appear as your skin is scraped. This is a sign of increased blood flow to the area and, according to the principles of TCM, indicates the release of stagnant blood and toxins from the tissues in that area.

Scraping therapy can improve blood flow and lymphatic drainage. Increased blood flow means that more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the tissues in the area being treated.

The lymphatic system helps free the body of waste and protect it from potential invaders. Increased lymphatic drainage has many benefits, which we will discuss in the next section.

Benefits of scraping therapy

It's thought that scraping therapy may offer a wide range of physical and mental health benefits. However, Gua Sha is not explored widely in modern science, leading to a lack of strong, high-quality evidence regarding its effects. Here are some of the physical health benefits that Gua Sha may potentially deliver:

  • Relieves muscle tension. Scraping therapy can relieve muscle tension in the treated area, making it a great choice for recovering athletes.
  • Promotes healing. Gua Sha increases blood flow to the treatment area, delivering extra nutrients that are important for the healing process, which may potentially shorten recovery time.
  • Reduces inflammation. Gua Sha therapy may have a role in decreasing inflammation, which research shows may be helpful when recovering from some types of sports injuries and many other conditions.
  • Improves skin appearance. Scraping therapy can give your skin a healthy glow, making it popular in modern beauty treatments.

Here are some of the mental health benefits of Gua Sha:

  • Stress relief. The gentle, massage-like pressure of scraping therapy encourages your body to release endorphins, reducing stress and anxiety.
  • Relaxation. This calming practice creates a state of deep relaxation, which may encourage better sleep and leave you feeling refreshed.

Potential risks and considerations

Scraping therapy comes with a risk of side effects, especially, if not done safely. It may cause bruising if you have sensitive skin, and you may experience discomfort during or after a session, particularly if the practitioner scrapes too hard.

A practitioner can alleviate these risks by communicating with you throughout the session to make sure you’re comfortable. However, there are some precautions to be aware of with Gua Sha.

  • People with certain medical conditions, such as open wounds, bruises, rash, eczema, sunburn, skin infections, or bleeding disorders, should avoid scraping therapy or speak to a healthcare professional before starting treatment.
  • People taking blood thinning medication may have an increased risk of bruising and bleeding.
  • Practitioners should avoid scraping around the abdomen in pregnant women to avoid potential obstetric complications.
  • Some cases of contact dermatitis, skin burns, hematuria (blood in urine), and a few other serious complications have been documented.
  • Press-stroking devices that are made of materials such as horn or bone are not suitable for heat or chemical sterilization and are therefore no longer appropriate for clinical use.
  • According to PPE, a new pair of disposable gloves should be worn by the provider of the service.

As sometimes more vigorous scraping can cause bruises on the skin, it's important to choose reputable salons that follow hygiene standards for this procedure because tools are often reused without proper sterilization and carry the risk of transferring blood-borne diseases.

What to expect during your first session

When you arrive for your first Gua Sha session, your practitioner will explain the process and answer any questions you have. The session usually lasts around 20–30 minutes, depending on the size of the area being scraped and how you react to the treatment.

After the session, you may have some redness or mild bruising, which should disappear within a few days. Your practitioner will let you know if you need further sessions.

Final words

Scraping therapy may offer many potential benefits for physical and mental health. It can provide relief from muscle tension, potentially reduce inflammation, encourage soft tissue injuries to heal faster, and improve skin appearance.

It can also relieve stress and help you relax, leading to better sleep and emotional balance. While it may have side effects, a good practitioner will check that you’re comfortable and safe throughout treatment. If you’d like to give scraping therapy a go, select a reputable practitioner trained in Gua Sha or traditional Chinese medicine to ensure the best experience.

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