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Gwa Sha
by Jim Martin

“If you ever do that to her again I’ll kill you!” I’ll never forget these words of a young woman as she related her husband’s reaction to a rather little known and poorly understood treatment we had given her called ‘Gwa Sha.’ His concern was, however, easily understood, as his wife’s neck and back were covered with a bright red rash, suggesting that she had fallen from a motorcycle and slid unprotected down the highway or, in this case, been severely abused by some crazed and violent acupuncturists. What he did not know was that she was in no pain and that, in fact, she felt much better than when she came in complaining of upper body pain. He also had no way of knowing that the rash would dissipate within a few days, leaving her skin soft and smooth exactly the way he remembered it.

‘Sha’ is a condition in which the waste products of cellular metabolism (the burning of glucose in the cells for energy) become trapped in the muscle fibers, often as the result of major trauma such as whiplash but sometimes from accumulated smaller traumas from daily wear and tear and exercise. The Chinese medical diagnosis is ‘stagnation of blood and chi in the meridians,’ meaning that there is obstruction of the energy and fluids in the affected area. The result is stiffness, soreness and pain. Usually, treatment for this condition consists of medications including painkillers, muscle relaxers and possibly anti-depressants, plus massages, chiropractic, physical therapy and so on. People come to see me usually when they have tried most or all of the above but have failed to find satisfactory relief from their problem. In my experience, these therapies can be even more effective when applied after ‘Gwa Sha’ treatment. For example, I used ‘Gwa Sha’ on one woman who was referred from a chiropractor who was unable to adjust four vertebrae in her neck. Immediately after ‘Gwa Sha’ treatment, three of the four vertebrae were successfully adjusted.

‘Gwa Sha’ is perhaps the most dramatic treatment I have ever used for the relief of neck and shoulder stiffness and pain. It is remarkably simple yet effective. The skin is coated with a liniment, and then briskly rubbed with a hard object such as a coin or ceramic soupspoon, resulting in a red rash. It is understood that the pressure and stroking motion dislodge the encapsulated waste products and draw them to the skin surface where they may be eliminated from the body altogether. ‘Sha’ is a Chinese word for sand, describing the rough texture of the rash as it appears in some cases.

The benefits of ‘Gwa Sha’ treatment are first that it produces immediate results most of the time. The appearance of the rash itself confirms the correct diagnosis of the ‘Sha’ condition in the muscle tissue, and usually provides significant immediate pain relief. Patients will generally report a 50-90% reduction of pain and stiffness immediately upon conclusion of the treatment, although occasionally the discomfort may increase somewhat on the day following treatment, and then reduce significantly the following day.

Disadvantages of the treatment are that it may be temporarily uncomfortable for some people during the actual process, and that a red rash will be produced.

The rash will act like a common bruise, starting to fade within minutes, turning dull reddish to green and usually disappearing within about four days. There is no bleeding or injury to the skin whatsoever. The biggest problem is convincing concerned friends and family that you are not suffering from the treatment in any way, despite its frightening appearance.

Who receives ‘Gwa Sha’ treatment? I recommend it as the first line of treatment to most people suffering from upper body discomfort, and occasionally for low back pain, because it is so fast and effective in the great majority of cases. I frequently use ‘Gwa Sha’ even on fibromyalgia sufferers, with extremely sensitive skin and muscles, who have reported relief of symptoms where all other prior treatment has failed. I then follow up with acupuncture or ‘Moxabustion’ (heat) to target remaining problem areas, and may recommend Chinese herbal formulas or therapeutic magnets to use between treatments.

In some cases, a single session is sufficient to bring resolution to the problem. However, only so much ‘Sha’ can emerge at one time, and in other situations where the problem is more severe, several sessions, usually a week apart, are necessary to complete the job.

All considered, patients like the results and often come back and ask for more ‘Gwa Sha’ treatment when in need. It is a powerful tool from ancient Chinese medicine well suited to help relieve the aches and pains of the modern American public.

Jim Martin, Lic. Ac. is an acupuncturist with offices in Hillsboro (503-640-3668) and Scappoose (503-543-7266). He presents slide and lecture programs about travels in search of strange and wonderful people and places around the world. Email: