That’s when Buu Tran, Hamacher’s mother-in-law, made an unusual proposition: She would scrape his back with a kitchen spoon. It’s a technique that she learned as a child growing up in Asia. Tran, an ethnic Chinese, emigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1977.
“It’s going to feel like you’re bleeding, but you won’t be bleeding,” Hamacher remembers Luu explaining. Tran scraped his back with a spoon for about 30 minutes, then gave him some chrysanthemum tea.
“Did it cure my sinus infection? No,” Hamacher says. “Did my overall well-being feel better? Yes . . . the all-encompassing sickness feeling left immediately.”˜
Hamacher had undergone gua sha [pronounced “gwah sah”], an East Asian home remedy for respiratory problems and other ailments. Often called “scraping,” the technique is beginning to find fans in the West.
Like most alternative therapies, gua sha has not been subjected to extensive scientific studies. One small study, published last year in the journal Pain Medicine, found short-term benefits for chronic neck pain when compared to a thermal heating pad.
Leslie Fazio, a physical therapist at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Network location in Ballston, first heard of gua sha from a co-worker and incorporated the technique into her practice. She now uses it to treat back pain, muscle problems in the leg, such as Achilles tendinitis, and foot problems such as plantar fasciitis. She notes that for patients, the practice isn’t necessarily pleasant.
“It can be uncomfortable,” Fazio says.
Like massage therapists, gua sha practitioners palpate their patients to find areas that feel tight. They then rub them with a spoon or similar tool until they turn red. “Essentially, you are scraping the restriction in their skin,” Fazio says.
Where to scrape tight muscles is obvious; where to scrape for other ailments is decided by traditions that associate different organs with specific parts of the body.
Some patients turn to gua sha with a “why not?” attitude.
Brian Lowit, 37, a manager at a record label in Arlington, says he has had back pain for more than two decades. He tried gua sha last year as part of a regimen that included massage, visits to a chiropractor and structural integration, another alternative therapy that manipulates the body’s connective tissues.
Lowit estimates that Fazio treated him with gua sha about five times in one month.
“I’m skeptical of a lot of stuff,” Lowit says. “I’ll try whatever, but in the end I’m like, ‘Why would this work?’ ” But he was pleasantly surprised.