Cupping and Gua sha have gained some recognition in recent years, mostly when used by celebrities. The tell tale circles on people's backs are caused by the suction of cups against the muscles. But why would anyone do this to themselves? It looks so painful! The good news is that it is not painful and the techniques offer many benefits.
Cupping and Gua sha have many uses. They are most typically used when there is some form of Qi or Blood stagnation, usually indicated by tension, discomfort or pain. The tight neck you get from sitting too long at a computer is a good example of Qi stagnation. There is a Chinese saying, "When there is pain, there is no free flow; when there is free flow, there is no pain." Cupping and Gua sha improve circulation and reestablish proper Blood and Qi flow in muscles that are tight and not moving the way that they should.
Gua sha involves the use of a hard, smooth instrument, often a ceramic spoon (like the one you use at a Chinese restaurant for wonton soup) or a piece of jade. The practitioner scrapes the spoon against the skin along the tight muscles to release the underlying tension and stagnation; it is like getting a very deep massage, very quickly. Wherever there is stagnation, tension or muscle "knots" you will see a bright red/purple mark on the skin (see photo), akin to road rash but without the abrasion. This is an indication that the stagnation has released from the muscles and the Qi and Blood are starting to circulate again. Anywhere that doesn't have stagnation, you will just see light redness on the skin from the friction of the spoon. Usually after Gua sha, the patient has better range of motion and significantly less pain, although there might be some local superficial soreness. Gua sha is a great technique to use on any tight muscles, as long as there isn't any inflammation present.
Traditionally Cupping is done by lighting a cotton ball on fire and inserting it into a glass cup (the fire uses up all of the oxygen inside). Then the cotton is quickly removed and the cup is placed on the body. The lack of oxygen creates a vacuum, sucking the muscle up into the cup. If feels like when a massage therapist grabs your muscle and squeezes it. Today more practitioners use plastic cups (see photo) that come with a suction pump (no fire). I find them easier to use with less fire hazard, and they are just as effective. Cupping is very versatile in its uses. Like Gua sha it can be used for tight muscles, but it can also be used for respiratory problems, like asthma, chest colds or bronchitis, or for digestive problems like bloating, constipation or IBS. These conditions all involve some element of Qi stagnation. With many respiratory conditions, Phlegm is getting stuck in the Lungs and chest causing breathing difficulty; when Phlegm gets stuck, Qi gets stuck. When you can get the Qi flowing again, it is easier to expectorate the Phlegm, the chest and upper back are more relaxed so breathing is easier. With digestive issues, sliding the cups on the abdomen in a clockwise motion can encourage movement in the direction of the natural flow of the intestines to release discomfort and make evacuation a little easier. Cupping tends to be a bit gentler, and the amount of suction can be adjusted as well. Afterward patients look like they were attacked by an octopus, but the relief is immediate.
Cupping and Gua sha can be stand alone treatments or used in conjunction with Acupuncture or Moxibustion. They are very effective techniques and the results are felt right away. The only downside is that they can leave a mark for 3-7 days, so you might want to warn your significant other before you take off your shirt.
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