An article I wrote a while back for a website that no longer exists. Enjoy!
Ancient Chinese Secret for Speeding up Recovery from Training and Injury
Mike Hedlesky, MS, CSCS, USAW, CF-L1, EMT-B
Training is basically a series of progressively increasing physical stress events that cause adaptation to a physical stimulus. That sounds nice, neat, and tidy, doesn’t it? Well, problems arise when you train intensely for a given event, competition, or goal. When you are hell bent to complete and excel at any physical objective, those “progressively increasing physical stress events” are less like exercise and more like putting yourself through a series of completely on purpose horrific car accidents week after week, day after day. Believe it or not, all exercise is catabolic. In other words, every time you lift and run, you are basically taking a physiological weed whacker to your muscle tissue. As you can imagine, extreme training stimulus leads to extreme muscle damage. True, sound nutrition, sleep, and a smart training plan can help circumvent the negative aspects of training adaptations (i.e. eventual injury), but if you are not considering and implementing sound recovery protocols, then you are not putting your body in the best possible condition to work at maximum efficiency.
With the plethora of training information that can be found on the internet, it is hard to tell what works and what doesn’t in regards to improving your ability to recover faster and train harder. I am going to share with you a recovery protocol that has been used for hundreds of years and is one of the most successful recovery tools used in physical therapy today. Gua Sha is loosely translated to “scrape bruising.” It was originally utilized in ancient Chinese medicine when it was believed to remove toxins from the body or flush out pain ghosts or something like that. Even though there was no real diagnostic tool to determine whether or not the treatments were working when the process was first being utilized, those undergoing Gua Sha reported lower instances of pain, swelling, bruising, and even lower instance of disease. Fast forward a couple hundred years to right now, and these treatments still get the same results even though practitioners now use specifically designed Gua Sha tools instead of old worn coins and strong dinner plates like they did back in the day.
What scraping therapy actually does is create a localized injury/inflammation response. Basically, you scrape a problem area in order to trick your body into thinking you have sustained an injury. This signals a typical inflammation response in order to flush the area and begin the healing process. The bruising involved with Gua Sha is key to the process and what separates from just getting an injury. The bruising is the opening of pre and post capillary sphincters under your skin. This gives that inflammation response somewhere to go so that is does not settle in the area. Yes, you are literally power washing pain, adhesions, and swelling away.
How exactly does one do Gua Sha? It is pretty easy. It is also pretty brutal. First off, you need the equipment. You can’t exactly go to Wal-Mart and pick up a scraping kit. You can, however, buy a Gua Sha kit for EXTREMELY cheap on Amazon.com. Also, you need some kind of lubricant to put down to make sure you don’t accidently rip all your skin off. I strongly suggest the clear liquid tiger balm. Not only does it work great for the scraping, but the high concentration of winter green extract in the formula makes you smell like you went for a frolic in the Enchanted Forest. Once you have the required materials, the treatment itself is pretty easy.
How to Gua Sha:
Once a problem area has been lubricated, you want to scrape away from your core and away from the midline of whatever part of your body you are working on. Going through long scraping patterns using many short hard scrapes seems to work best. Once you notice some bruising and redness accumulating, lubricate and scrape the opposite, non-problem, side of the body as well. If you notice any asymmetry in bruising from the non-injured to the injured side, spend some extra time working on the rogue bruising pattern. This is most likely where your issue is originating. There is no real time limit on how long you should scrape. You want to do it long and hard enough to initiate some bruising and then move on.
When to Gua Sha:
Gua Sha has mainly been studied and shows significant positive benefits in regards to pain reduction, increasing range of motion, decreasing swelling, and even significantly improving various internal organ dysfunctions. Personally, I think it is one of the best injury prevention strategies you can utilize. If you have any nagging tightness/pain, the issue could stem from adhesions or sliding surface problems in the myofascia. Since scraping therapy is predominately superficial, it is perfect for loosening up tight muscles even when no pain is present. I strongly suggest only using any scrape therapy after training or on off days. I think it can be lightly done as part of a warm-up protocol but there are definitely more efficient ways to prepare for your training.
Start off with one session a week just to see how you respond. At least give it enough time for the initial bruising to dissipate before you attempt another treatment. Once you have done a few treatments, you will notice the bruising goes away faster and this will allow you to increase your frequency of treatment until your issue has resolved.
I am not going to lie. Gua Sha is tough. Tough things work, especially if you are training hard for something. Good luck and don’t accidently cut your leg off or anything.