Acupuncture, Cupping and Gua Sha are Wonderful Painkillers
A friend of mine, the amazing chef and culinary consultant Jill Houk, recently asked me why I don’t talk more about how acupuncture is a wonderful treatment alternative to addictive opiate painkillers, as it also has none of the deadly and addicting side effects (well honestly acupuncture treatment is somewhat addicting in that it naturally releases endorphins, but there’s no overdosing on acupuncture). But seriously, acupuncture is a great treatment method for pain management – from acute injury to chronic ailments – and I have written about that extensively with more posts to come. Today, though, I want to talk about two other therapies that I frequently use in my clinic to help a patient with pain – vacuum cupping (hereafter referred to as cupping) and gua sha.
Cupping and gua sha are quite similar – cupping is the process of suctioning skin into a cup, be it plastic, glass or silicone to relieve pain and inflammation. The suction can be created by a hand held pump or through the use of fire (also called fire cupping, but don’t worry, it doesn’t burn or hurt), and both types are effective to relieve pain. Cupping can happen anywhere on the body, but most often on the back, hips and upper back/shoulders. Cupping brings fresh blood to the area and stimulates the tissue to remove cellular waste and disperse accumulated inflammation. It also produces a red coloration on the skin that some people call a bruise. The color of the marks can be light pink, red, dark red or purple. In my clinic, I use cups on a patient while they are also having an acupuncture treatment, most often, although sometimes we use them after a treatment has completed. The results are really quite amazing with pain, headaches, tension and even immobility improving immediately. Dark colors coming up during the process will go away in a few days with plenty of water and this is actually a good indication — it shows me that the patient really needed this specific type of work to reduce inflammation and stagnation. Cupping therapy on the back and chest is also used to treat a cough and/or upper respiratory infections as the cups can help improve lung function.
Gua sha is similar to cupping, but the tool used often is a glass chinese soup spoon – although there are some specific tools sold out there made of bone or plastic – the spoon is my personal favorite. With gua sha the skin is rubbed with a smooth edged object to release tension in the muscle, or inflammation in the joint or area. Gua sha is used most often in areas of the body that are curved, such as the neck, or a joint like the elbow or the knee, as a cup may not fit conveniently there.
One of the things I love about gua sha is that it can be done really anywhere and works sort of like a party trick for me (but please don’t try this at home, this is something to be done by a trained professional) to relieve pain. For example, a few years ago I went to a friend’s house to pick her up before a movie. When she answered the door I noticed she was walking strangely – and when I enquired she told me that the only way her back didn’t hurt was to walk around with her hand tucked into the top of her pants. Curious, I asked her more about this pain which was actually in her upper back/neck area. I did a little palpation (pressed on her skin to check and see if she would respond to gua sha ) and then offered to gua sha her neck/upper back to see if it would relieve the pain. I then searched through her kitchen and found an object suitable to do the treatment, some oil to use on her skin, and had her sit in a chair facing away from me. About 15 minutes later she was amazed. Her back didn’t hurt, she didn’t have to walk with her hand in a certain position to stabilize her back and relieve pain, and she did not have to take a pill or a medicine! She was so happy. Her neck was red for a few days but her pain was gone. Needless to say she was sold on chinese medicine and eager to learn more.
I had a similar experience in school, when I was an intern at PCOM’s student clinic. A patient came in with elbow pain – she was a martial artist and had hurt her arm/elbow in her regular practice. She came in for acupuncture treatment, which helped, but she loved the gua sha on her arm and elbow, which again, produced significant, rapid, pain relief.
In all seriousness, opiate addiction is no joke – and pain isn’t either. Acupuncture, cupping and gua sha are amazing, effective alternatives to these strong pharmaceuticals. Often Chinese herbs are recommended as well – they are safe, effective and not habit forming. Many people end up seeking alternative treatment as a last resort. You don’t have to wait until nothing else works – starting with acupuncture treatment can save you a lot of time and money. And it can get you back into your life, doing things you enjoy before you know it.