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Studies Show Gua Sha Therapy To Be An Ideal Treatment For Chronic Pain

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When it comes to instant relief of pain, there is growing evidence that gua sha, a traditional form of Chinese medicine in Winter Park in which the skin is scraped by a blunt instrument, can be quite effective.

Gua sha therapy is a 2,000-year-old form of treatment, used by Chinese mothers for generations as a domestic remedy to heal sick children. It is now used all over Southeast Asia by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, and in immigrant Asian communities throughout the world.

Over 120 clinical studies have been done on gua sha therapy since 2005, most of them focusing on the treatment of chronic back pain and other painful, musculoskeletal conditions. Harvard researchers, in 2009, discovered that the therapy has potential immunological and anti-inflammatory qualities. Another study performed in 2011, revealed that gua sha lessened liver inflammation in patients suffering from chronic hepatitis B.

Recently, research investigating the healing qualities of gua sha on 40 patients with chronic lower back and neck pain was featured in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine. The volunteer subjects were designated randomly to either a waiting list control group or a treatment group that was solely treated with gua sha.

A week after treatment, the two groups were evaluated. Compared to the control group, the subjects in the gua sha treatment group experienced better health status and significant reduction of their pain. However, enhanced pain sensitivity was reported in patients with chronic neck pain but not in the patients with lower back pain. The researchers believed the difference was due to higher sensitivity to pressure in the neck region.

One research team member from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Romy Lauche, recalled that several patients experienced continuous relief for more than a week, and one anxious participant showed surprising results. Lauche recounted a woman with a back pain scale of seven (with ten being the most painful on a 10-point scale of pain) came back for assessment without any pain. Having evaluated the woman prior to and after treatment, he could see that gua sha had cured all the woman’s muscle tension. In a phone interview, Lauche said, the evidence of tense muscles had vanished.”

Like any other forms of alternative and complementary treatments, gua sha is not without controversy. This is due mostly to the seemingly and distinctive intense marks that are the trademarks of the therapy. These marks are called petechiae and they’re neither rashes nor bruises. The petechiae appear severe enough to scare lots of patients away, patients who are seeking for a drug-free and natural alternative form of pain relief.

In 2001, a Hong Kong film entitled Gua Sha Treatment helped some people rectify their misconception about the therapy. Gua Sha Treatment starred Tony Leung and it involved a tale about Chinese-American immigrants who had to deal with cultural misunderstanding when a physician discovered the brutal gua sha marks on a young boy and reported it to the authorities. Since the movie catered to the American people, it had a happy ending. In reality however, not all gua sha procedures end up well.

Hong Kong resident Annie Tong received gua sha therapy ten years ago in a clinic in Kowloon. She still recounts her ordeal. “It was painful, and my back was as red as a radish.” The pain lasted for days, and I found little relief. I wouldn’t try gua sha again”.

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, Dr Gladys Leung says that gua sha therapy need not be painful. The entire gua sha experience of the patient will depend on the patient’s sensitivity to pain and communication between the therapist and the patient. She said, “The therapist may be administering the technique too vigorously without asking any feedback from the patient.”

In Singapore, acupuncture specialist and traditional Chinese practitioner expert Wu Yue, says that for various for degrees of patient pain, there are various corresponding degrees of firmness. “It will be based on the degree of stagnation in chi and the level of blood flow.” A vigorous stroke may be applied for extremely blocked chi indicated by extremely tense muscles.”

In New York, acupuncture director of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Centre, Dr Arya Nielsen, wrote a book about basic gua sha treatment. She headed a study to validate the reliability of gua sha therapy in the treatment of pain and deems the technique “a simple miracle of medicine.”

Dr. Nielsen has issued safety guidelines for cupping and gua sha procedures in order to elevate the quality of practice standards and to reduce risks. She believes that during a cupping or gua sha session, pain should not be a part of a patient’s experience.

The bruises caused by gua sha are perhaps the biggest misapprehensions about the treatment. Nielsen says, “Since bruising suggests injury and traumatic bleeding to the tissue, gua sha does not cause bruising because the reddish marks that appear after a session of gua sha indicate the movement of red blood cells in the skin tissue surface and not injury to the tissue.”

“When blood stagnancy develops (manifesting as recurring, persistent, or fixed pain), gua sha will force the cells to go ‘outside’ the vessels, but these cells will be immediately reabsorbed into the body.”

Gua sha alleviates pain, increases the flow of blood and enhances the function of the nervous system. Special oil is applied on the site of treatment during the procedure to relax, protect, and detoxify the body based on the needs of the patient. The therapist starts the process by scraping the skin with a blunt-edged instrument usually made from animal horn, jade, or metal.

These days, protocol demands that the gua sha instruments be disposable or sterilized to prevent infection.

The manner of press-stroking is repeated until the red dots or petechiae appear and the stroking is unidirectional. Based on the petechiae’s color, the therapist will know if the blood stagnation is chronic (purplish to dark red to black) or recent (lighter red). The marks usually vanish entirely within three days to a week.

Patients may experience a variety of symptoms after the treatment. According to Nielsen, the patient may notice, “An instant relief in pain, less likelihood to wheeze, vomit, or feel nauseated, and an increased range of motion in the joints and muscles”.

Dr. Nielsen warns that the therapy should not be administered on areas where there are pimples, moles, wounds, rash, or sunburn. Many physicians believe that the treatment should also not be given to people suffering from certain cancers and those with diabetes as well as on pregnant women. Nielsen however disagrees with this, stating that “Gua sha generates an immune response that helps protect the internal organs”.

A systematic review of controlled clinical trials of gua sha was done by researchers from the Korean Institute of Oriental Medicine. The results were published in the BioMed Central journal in 2010.

The researchers studied eleven databases and discovered 7 trials, 3 of which reported beneficial effects on pain reduction but were compromised due to poor quality of research. They concluded, “Recent evidence to prove that gua sha effectively works in the management of pain is not enough.”

A few years back, German researchers published another study in the Pain Medicine journal. In the study, they randomly designated 48 patients suffering from chronic pain in the neck to either one local thermal heat pad treatment or one gua sha treatment. They followed up a week later.

The results of the study showed that gua sha led to positive short-term benefits on functional status and pain in patients with chronic neck pain; its long-term value, however, remains to be seen.

Written by Valerie

July 30th, 2019 at 12:56 pm

Posted in Acupuncture

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