“At first, I thought, ‘Should I do this every week for the rest of my life?’ ” Lowit says. “I was scared to stop.”
Researchers at the University of Duisburg-Essen teaching hospital in Germany designed a randomized clinical trial in which some patients with chronic mechanical neck pain received gua sha while a control group was treated with heating pads to the neck.
The study concluded that “neck pain severity after one week improved significantly in the gua sha group compared to the control group. Significant treatment effects were also found for pain at motion,” and their quality of life improved, the study said.
It added that “the value of gua sha in the long-term management of neck pain and related mechanisms remains to be clarified.”
On her Web site, Arya Nielsen, director of acupuncture in the Department of Integrative Medicine at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, makes sweeping claims about the prevention and treatment abilities of gua sha. In a telephone interview, she said she believes that gua sha is a promising treatment for neck pain and mastitis, the breast engorgement that affects some breast-feeding mothers.
Nielsen, who has written one of the few books in English on gua sha, explains that the therapy intentionally raises transitory therapeutic petechiae, or minor hemorrhages from broken blood vessels. She says the scraping, which she calls “instrument-assisted unidirectional press stroking,” stimulates an anti-inflammatory and immune response.
“Because the petechiae look alarming, gua sha has kind of suffered from misconceptions in the West,” Nielsen says. “Asian immigrants had some amount of reticence showing what they were doing in their medicine.”
“Gua sha doesn’t hurt,” says Benjamin Kligler, the research director of integrative medicine at Beth Israel. Kligler says that gua sha works by stimulating the immune system and that scraping the back can help alleviate conditions that aren’t related to back pain.
“It could not be used to replace the antibiotic,” he wrote in an e-mail. But “gua sha may stimulate the body’s own immune response, which in turn could help fight the infection, making the antibiotic more effective.”
While Kligler isn’t aware of another hospital in the country offering gua sha, he estimated that hundreds of acupuncturists in New York are doing so. Though it’s routinely taught at Eastern medicine institutions, there’s no gua sha licensure or certification. Indeed, asking someone who grew up with gua sha about the practice is surreal — a bit like asking a grandmother how she figured out that you’re supposed to drink ginger ale when you have a stomachache.
“It’s like a culture — we don’t learn it,” says Tran, Jenny Luu’s mother. (Her daughter served as an interpreter during an interview with an English-speaking reporter.) “We saw the parents do it in the family. . . . When you are sick or tired, that’s what we use.” The materials for the treatment — a spoon and, to lubricate it, a bit of gin or white flower oil.
Tran’s explanation of how gua sha works is simple if unscientific. “When you get sick, the sickness inside your body can’t get out,” Tran says. Gua sha’s strokes let the sickness escape, she says. Though Hamacher and Luu likely won’t take a spoon to their child’s back when she gets sick, they don’t have a problem with her grandmother’s treatment.
Says Hamacher: “It would be the same if you were at a Jewish person’s house and they were like, ‘Do you want some matzo ball soup?’ ”