One of the most useful techniques I learned in acupuncture school is Gua Sha (pronounced gwa sa), an ancient healing ‘cure’ that we learned as first year students from Dr. Arya Nielsen. Nielsen is largely responsible for the 2018 shift in policy for hospitals to offer alternative therapies like acupuncture to mitigate the over-prescription of opioids for pain. She was one of our teachers for the next three years both in clinics and classes.
It was fascinating to watch Nielsen treat a neck muscle spasm, sciatica, bronchitis, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, gastrointestinal distress and myriad other ailments by gently rubbing the surface of skin with a smooth-edged disposable instrument to bring “sha”, or stagnant blood, out of the muscles into the subcutaneous layer where it could then be flushed away by the lymphatic system. We practiced on each other for our first class and were surprised that the gentle rubbing of Gua Sha left us with red, purple or blue “petechiae” that looked like bruising. We discovered that, despite our ‘battered’ look, our flexibility, chronic tension or stiffness dramatically improved.
The temporary discoloration of the skin can cause alarm to someone who is not familiar with the technique. In the contemporary Chinese film, The Gua Sha Treatment, a grandfather from China comes to stay with his son’s family in America. When his grandson gets a fever he employs the rubbing technique to resolve it. Social workers mistake it for abuse that leads to the child being taken away from the family. The grandfather returns to China not wanting to live in a place where a simple, harmless technique like Gua Sha, which is so common in China, is treated as child abuse. When I first started practice I would give all my patients a handout explaining the technique in case they were questioned about the discoloration that could be misconstrued as bruises instead of petechiae.
In the last month Gua Sha has helped clear up the congestion in my lungs that was lingering from a cold AND helped with a sore shoulder from holding my grandson who is twenty pounds, but not quite walking yet. The unresolved congestion from my cold could have led to a course of antibiotics. The sore shoulder, if untreated, might have caused the common ailment of “frozen shoulder”. Gua Sha is employed not only by acupuncturists, but also by some massage therapists and chiropractors, and, in my case, it was administered by my husband whom I trained well. In traditional cultures it is often the ‘cook of the house’ that is given this role.
Dr. Nielsen, considered the Western authority on this traditional East Asian technique, works at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan where she does research, treats patients and heads a fellowship program for newly minted acupuncturists for inpatient care. I am grateful for her interest, study and teaching of this indigenous healing practice that helps so many and can save money and time in our personal health care.