What are Cupping & Gua Sha in Chinese Massage?

Cupping and Gua Sha: What are they and what are the benefits?

Have you heard these words before and been curious about what they are? Have you seen pictures of someone with circular cupping marks on their back and wondered what that is all about?

What is Cupping? What is Gua Sha?

Portland Massage Therapy Gua ShaCupping and Gua Sha are techniques commonly used in traditional Chinese Medicine and Massage. These methods have been used for thousands of years to alleviate pain and treat chronic and acute conditions. One of the main goals of Chinese Medicine is to balance and harmonize the flow of energy in the body. This vital energy (or, qi, pronounced “chee”) circulates through meridians, or channels, that pass through vital organs and musculature in the body. When qi becomes depleted or excessive, the result is often stagnation, which we feel as physical pain. Cupping and Gua Sha work in different ways to remove stagnation and rebalance the flow of vital energy through the meridians.

Cupping is a technique that uses heat and a glass cup. The practitioner temporarily lights a flame inside the glass cup to remove the oxygen from it, quickly removes the flame from the cup and gently places the cup on the surface of the skin, which causes a suction effect. The cups are placed on specific areas of the body (usually the back, shoulders, arms and legs) and can be left in place (stationary) or moved across the skin (gliding). The purpose of cupping is to draw up congestion and stagnation from deeper in the body and release locked tension. This allows qi energy to move freely through the meridians, alleviating pain.

PortlandMassageTherapyExpertsGuaShaGua Sha uses a porcelain Chinese soup spoon (traditionally), or other curved, smooth-edged object, to gently scrape along the surface of the skin in areas where tension, scar tissue, adhesions or other types of congestion exist in order to remove restrictions of circulatory flow in the area. Contrary to cupping, which creates “reverse-pressure” by suction, Gua Sha clears stagnation and assists qi flow from the top down. This method applies pressure from the surface of the skin to affect deeper layers.

How can these therapies help me?

Cupping and Gua Sha are particularly useful in helping to alleviate and reduce:

  • Chronic pain
  • Respiratory and/or sinus congestion
  • Scar tissue from previous injury or surgery
  • Systemic inflammation
  • Stagnation of fluids (blood and lymph)
  • Acute muscle tension

Does it hurt?

Cupping creates a unique sensation of suction on the surface of the skin that is unlike anything you may have felt before. It may initially feel like a tight, intense, pulling sensation. As the cups remain on the body, this tight sensation usually softens and becomes very enjoyable and relaxing.

Gua Sha is done with quick, gliding strokes that often feel more invigorating and direct. Gua Sha can feel somewhat tender if there is acute inflammation in the body, however, the sense of muscle tension release and relief is often felt immediately.

Will I be bruised afterwards? How long will the marks last?

Both of these methods can cause discoloration on the surface of the skin. It is a common misconception that these marks are actual bruises. Bruises are a result of broken capillaries due to impact and are often deep and sensitive to the touch.

Cupping and Gua Sha marks can sometimes feel slightly rough or raw within the first 24 hours of treatment, and do not tend to feel like bruises. The discoloration caused by cupping and Gua Sha is a result of congestion and toxins being pulled up from deep muscle and tissue layers, and releasing through the skin. The marks left behind usually fade and disappear within 2-5 days.

Cupping and Gua Sha aftercare:

Following your treatment, your practitioner will advise you to:

Keep the area covered and stay warm: Cupping and Gua Sha both cause the body to physically release heat. It is important to keep the treated areas covered, away from the sun and drafts, and to keep your whole body warm for up to 48 hours following the session.

Hydrate well: It is always important to keep your body hydrated for proper muscle and structural functioning. This is especially important before and after bodywork sessions and can help reduce any soreness felt from the treatment.

Avoid extreme hot or cold exercise: Your body will be seeking balance and harmony in several ways following these treatments. It is helpful to allow your body to adjust gently, at its own pace. It is best to avoid strenuous exercise, steam rooms, sauna, hot or cold baths/showers, and ice on your skin for up to 48 hours following the session. Extreme temperature changes in the area of the treatment can cause previously relaxed muscles to tighten and spasm.

Avoid caffeine, sugar and alcohol: These treatments bring up previously held congestion and toxins to the surface of your skin to be released. Your liver will be processing this release for 24-48 hours following your treatment. It is best to give your body (and your liver) a break during this time of healing.

Heart Spring Health is located in Southeast Portland. Our providers specialize in collaborative care to address the whole person! If you’re interested in learning more about Chinese Medicine and Massage and how these healing modalities may help you, please contact us today.


Portland Massage TherapistMeagen Alm, LMT has been a student and recipient of Chinese medicine and massage for over two decades and believes deeply in the innate wisdom found within each human body to find balance. She enthusiastically offers these techniques to people who are seeking relief from acute and chronic pain. Meagen has recently been named as one of Portland’s Top Complementary Medicine Providers for 2016. She is practitioner of Chinese Medicine and Massage­ in the Portland metro area. You can schedule an appointment with Meagen by calling Heart Spring Health at 503-956-9396 or by visiting her website.


[Cupping photo courtesy of CC License] [Gua Sha photo courtesy of Vera Yu and David Li via CC License]