Sunday, June 24, 2012

In Which my Back Looks like a Raw Steak

In this post I will bring you a report about something very few of you will ever experience: gua sha (scraping) and hua guan'r (moving fire cupping).  These belong to a family of various preventative and therapeutic techniques in Chinese medicine.  I think Chinese massage, reflexology, and acupuncture are treatments of this type that have become at least somewhat well-known in the West.

Gua sha is a Chinese medicine technique used to release negative energy from the body, especially to cure colds or other minor ailments.   You can read Wikipedia's article or this article, "Fire-Cupping and Gua Sha for Dummies", more information.  I was vaguely aware of this technique before, but I learned more about it when I watched the movie The Treatment for my Chinese class this semester.  In the movie, a Chinese immigrant family is accused of child abuse when they see the marks left by gua sha on their little boy.  The grandpa had gua sha-ed the boy's back to cure a cold.

Another traditional Chinese treatment I'd been wanting to try is ba guan'r (fire-cupping).  Fire-cupping is a technique where the practitioner lights a match and heats the air in a small glass bowl, and then removes the fire and quickly places the cup on the person's back.  As the air cools, it creates a strong suction which is supposed to pull out toxins from the body.  Several of these cups are placed on the back and shoulders (or anywhere else) and left there for a few minutes.  Then the practitioner releases the suction and takes them off.

Both techniques leave marks on the skin which last for about a week.  The darker the color, the more unhealthy you supposedly are.

As a disclaimer, I don't believe in most of traditional Chinese medicine, and I don't really think these techniques accomplish anything in terms of qi, which I also don't think has any scientific basis.  But if you reason through them, you can see why these techniques could be helpful to reduce pain and help people relax.  They bring a lot of blood to the surface of the skin, which is probably good, right?  And since they are mildly painful, they cause you to tense up.  When the treatment is done, your tensed muscles relax more fully.

Anyway, I was curious and wanted to try them before I left China.  My friend and I went to a traditional Chinese medicine training school in Qufu and requested massages, hot-cupping, and scraping.  The timing was perfect because I really was tense after spending four hours giving final speaking exams that morning and three and a half hours on a bus that afternoon.

The gua sha was done on my neck and upper shoulders.  They stroke the skin repeatedly with a plastic scraper until it turns red (but doesn't bleed).

It hurts a little, but not as much as it looks like.  The girls were shocked at how dark my color was and told me repeatedly that my life must be too bitter and I must relax more and come in for another treatment in three weeks.

I wanted to get traditional fire-cupping, which you can read about at Wikipedia.  However, this place recommended moving fire-cupping instead.  Rather than letting several cups stay on the skin for awhile, they just do one and move it around the back.

Check out the skin bubbled up in there!

I got this moving cupping (I think they called it hua guan'r or zou guan'r) on my back.  It was also a little painful, but not as much as it looks.  Whenever he stopped moving the cup, I could feel the really strong suction.

After I came home, I couldn't resist taking a photo.  My whole back looked like this, with the scraping on the shoulders and spine and the cupping on my middle back.

The next day I felt a little sore (possibly also from the massage), but I could wear a backpack or walk around without really noticing it.  My Chinese friends freaked out when they saw me standing in front of an air conditioner, since apparently gua sha is supposed to open your pores and they were concerned that I was letting too much cold leak in.  From a Chinese health standpoint, cold is very bad.

Now it's two days later and my back has turned a little purple and it's not sore at all unless I push on it.  The marks should fade in the next few days.  I may or may not have felt marginally less tense after getting all this done but otherwise I can't say I felt any difference or benefit.  **Further update** Now it's three days later and the marks have faded to brown and yellow.  Should be mostly gone tomorrow.

I'm glad I gave it a try, even though I really do not believe in most Chinese medicine.  I think people in the West could benefit from at least trying techniques like this to remove pain and tension before they jump to expensive physical therapy, drugs, or surgery.

What do you think?


  1. I have to disagree with your thought that bringing a lot of blood to the surface of the skin is a good thing. Improving circulation is one thing, but from the way you're describing your healing process, all this technique accomplished was to give you massive bruising on your neck and back. I'm sure it was an interesting experience, but I think I'll pass! :)

  2. Interestingly, the sites I read about gua sha and ba guan'r all say it's not quite the same as bruising because it's all on the surface and heals much more quickly than a bruise.

    Not that I'm a Chinese medicine apologist -- my personal opinion is that the techniques I described here offer very little harm... or benefit. (With the exception that they might help some people who have a lot of muscle tension.)

  3. I so want to do that! Not because I believe it helps anything, but just for the cultural experience. Someday.

    1. Do it! That was exactly what I thought -- I don't buy it (although Lisa says fire-cupping really does help her) -- but why not give it a try?

  4. My acupuncturist did the gua sha technique on my neck/upper shoulders one time. I was thankful I had long hair to cover up my neck (because I had to work that evening and the visual was somewhat horrifying). Same as you, though, it wasn't really sore (especially compared with how it looked). I'm not sure about everything (eastern vs. western medicine) but I will say that I think acupuncture has been the one thing that has improved my chronic headaches. Luke had a massage in China that almost pulled all his joints out of socket...I'm not sure how therapeutic that ended up feeling?! : )

    1. I think acupuncture is one of the techniques that has some support from modern medical research. I've never tried it myself but I would definitely consider it if I thought I needed it. That's interesting that you have tried gua sha... I thought there wasn't much chance any of my blog readers would have had that experience. :) As for Chinese massage, some those guys really beat up on you if you don't tell them not to -- sometimes it's a test of endurance more than a relaxing experience!