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Muscle Scraping Explained: What Is It, The Benefits + Is It Safe?

Exploring the Therapeutic Benefits and Safety Considerations of Muscle Scraping

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When you go to a physical therapy appointment for a musculoskeletal injury, the physical therapist will likely employ numerous treatment modalities, depending on your injury.

A potential treatment technique used in physical therapy settings, as well as massage therapy, acupuncture, and other Eastern medicine practices, is muscle scraping.

Muscle scraping is a form of manual therapy that is said to accelerate the healing process of soft tissues such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia.

Muscle scraping can be a little uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking if you’ve never experienced it before, but as long as it is performed correctly, muscle scraping is not only safe, but it may also help your tissues heal.

A therapist muscle scraping a person's back.

What Is Muscle Scraping?

Muscle scraping is a manual therapy technique that is thought to accelerate the healing of injured soft tissues, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia.

Muscle scraping tools are usually small stainless steel tools that are used to perform muscle scraping, many practitioners call it the Graston Technique.

The muscle scraper is gently dragged over areas of soft tissue to help break up adhesions and scar tissue that have formed as a result of trauma or injuries to the muscles or connective tissues.

Some physical therapists may also use a specialized tool for muscle scraping in a version of the technique known as instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM). This tool allows them to apply more pressure to your tissues.

Muscle scraping may be used to help treat any number of soft tissue overuse injuries, including knee pain or other shin splints, pulled muscles, plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome, Achilles tendinitis, and back spasms, or other soft tissue injuries in the back.

Muscle scraping can be considered a form of Gua sha, a healing technique used in traditional East Asian medicine to relieve muscle pain and tension.1Chu, E. P., Wong, A. L., Sim, P., & Kruger, F. (2021). Exploring scraping therapy: Contemporary views on an ancient healing – A review. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care10(8), 2757. https://doi.org/10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_360_21

‌Gua sha also uses a scraper tool to gently mobilize tissue, which is said to move chi (energy) around the body while also breaking up connective tissue and adhesions.

A therapist muscle scraping a person's foot.

Is It Safe To Scrape Muscles?

Muscle scraping can sound like a painful and intimidating process, so one of the first questions that most people ask is: “Is muscle scraping safe?”

As long as it’s performed properly by a knowledgeable practitioner, muscle scraping is indeed safe.

The amount of pressure that is applied to scrape your soft tissues using an appropriate muscle scraper tool is not enough to damage your tissues.

What Are the Benefits Of Muscle Scraping?

While muscle scraping therapy shows promising anecdotal and clinical evidence, the scientific mechanisms behind the technique are still evolving.

Here are several reported benefits of muscle scraping, including the following:

#1: Increases Blood Circulation

Muscle scraping can increase circulation and blood flow to your soft tissue.2Xu, Q.-Y., Yang, J.-S., Zhu, B., Yang, L., Wang, Y.-Y., & Gao, X.-Y. (2012). The Effects of Scraping Therapy on Local Temperature and Blood Perfusion Volume in Healthy Subjects. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : ECAM2012, 490292. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/490292

Because blood carries oxygen and nutrients such as amino acids to repair damaged muscle proteins and structural fibers of connective tissues, if more blood perfuses your soft tissues, the better nourished these tissues will be, which improves healing.

A therapist muscle scraping a person's thigh.

#2: Can Break Up Scar Tissue

When soft tissues are damaged, scar tissue can form. Scar tissue is much less flexible and elastic than normal muscle fibers or connective tissue fibers. 

In this way, scar tissue creates knots, tight spots, or adhesions within the damaged tissue. Therefore, areas of scar tissue compromise the mobility and function of muscles, tendons, or ligaments.

For example, if you picture your biceps muscle, you can envision the long parallel muscle fibers bundled together, extending the length of the muscle from your shoulder to your elbow.

If you get a partial tear in your biceps muscle, some of the muscle fibers will rip and will no longer extend from the origin of the muscle at the shoulder to the insertion point at the biceps. 

Instead, they will partially curl up and harden, as scar tissue is thicker and inelastic relative to normal muscle cells. 

You can picture scar tissue in a muscle or tendon as being analogous to a knot in a tree or piece of lumber. Instead of being parallel to the wood grain, the knot forms a kink in the plane of the wood, reducing the strength of the board.

Scar tissue in a muscle or tendon acts the same way. Additionally, scar tissue is not contractile in the way that muscle fibers are.

This, when you go to do a biceps curl, for example, you will have reduced force output because some of your muscle fibers are no longer able to fully contract to flex your elbow.

Although scar tissue is an important step in the initial healing process, when it persists and becomes incorporated into the tissue on a more permanent basis, tissue function can be compromised.

A therapist muscle scraping a person's back.

#3: Can Reduce Pain

We just detailed the ways in which scar tissue can compromise mobility and function, but the problems don’t end there—scar tissue can also cause pain.

Scar tissue tends to be thicker than the normal muscle tissue or connective tissue that it replaced, so areas of scar tissue often tend to be tight and may cause pressure on surrounding structures, including other soft tissue fibers, lead vessels, or nerves.

This can result in pain and further dysfunction.

Therefore, one of the primary benefits of muscle scraping is pain relief by breaking up scar tissues and adhesions and increasing blood flow to promote healing.

Additionally, muscle scraping is thought to decrease pain perception through the gate theory of pain.

With the gate theory of pain, the scraping motion of the muscle scraper against the skin and soft tissues acts as a counter-irritant and distracts the brain from the presenting pain that you are trying to treat. 

Essentially, the discomfort sensation of the muscle scraper pulling on your tissues reaches the brain faster than the other pain signals from whatever injury or issue is ailing you; therefore, that pain is less bothersome.

A therapist muscle scraping a person's foot.

#4: Can Reduce Inflammation

Studies suggest that muscle scraping promotes the production of anti-inflammatory compounds. 3Yuen, J. W. M., Tsang, W. W. N., Tse, S. H. M., Loo, W. T. Y., Chan, S.-T., Wong, D. L. Y., Chung, H. H. Y., Tam, J. K. K., Choi, T. K. S., & Chiang, V. C. L. (2017). The effects of Gua sha on symptoms and inflammatory biomarkers associated with chronic low back pain: A randomized active-controlled crossover pilot study in elderly. Complementary Therapies in Medicine32, 25–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2017.03.010

Furthermore, the anti-inflammatory and pain-alleviating effects have been found to last longer than those of a hot pack when used to treat low back pain.

#5: Can Improve Performance

Some studies have found that muscle scraping treatments can improve exercise performance, including weightlifting strength and perceived exertion,4Wang X;Jia B;Zhong H;Huang X;Chen R;Yang J. (2019). Effects of Gua Sha therapy on weightlifting training: a randomized trial. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine = Chung I Tsa Chih Ying Wen Pan39(4). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32186106/as well as heart rate variability.5Wang, X., Chatchawan, U., Nakmareong, S., Silsirivanit, A., Wang, Y., Xie, D., Yang, J., & Eungpinichpong, W. (2015). Effects of GUASHA on Heart Rate Variability in Healthy Male Volunteers under Normal Condition and Weightlifters after Weightlifting Training Sessions. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine2015, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/268471

#6: Can Accelerate Healing

Most physical therapists will report that the primary benefit of muscle scraping is that it can accelerate healing and reduce treatment time.

By increasing circulation, decreasing inflammation, and optimizing tissue health, muscle scraping primes the body to repair and recover faster.

A physical therapist with a patient unwrapping their knee.

Moreover, the process can directly stimulate a more exaggerated healing response. 

This treatment essentially serves as a mini trauma or injury to the tissue, triggering the body to heal the underlying area.

For this reason, muscle scraping can be particularly helpful in cases of chronic or long-standing injuries that never healed.

Eventually, the body accepts scar tissue as healthy tissue and ignores the need to further heal or repair the area. 

Because the signal to repair is no longer being sent to the brain, resources will no longer be shuttled to the site of injury to repair the damage. Thus, the injury will remain in a state of partial healing.

Muscle scraping can cause just enough soft tissue perturbations that the body is alerted to damage and gets kick-started back into healing the prior injury.

A therapist muscle scraping a person's thigh.

How To Do Muscle Scraping

Although it’s ideal to get muscle scraping treatments from a trained professional, if you have a muscle scraper tool, you can do some basic at-home treatment. 

Here’s How:

  1. Choose a muscle scraper and the area of the body you want to treat. An easily-accessible area with a lot of scar tissue is best.
  2. Apply a thin layer of emollient (lotion, oil, vaseline) over the area you want to treat. You only need a little.
  3. Apply moderate pressure along the edge of the muscle scraper tool as you perform unidirectional strokes. It’s very important that you don’t change directions. 
  4. Keep muscle scraping for 15 seconds and then move slightly in one direction or the other, and keep scraping with the same pressure and direction.
  5. Then, move on to the next area. Again, apply moderate pressure and use unidirectional strokes.
  6. Clean the skin and drink lots of water when you are done.

Muscle scraping can be slightly uncomfortable, but many people find it leads to faster healing, less pain, and better function.

If you are injured, make sure to go to a qualified medical practitioner.

Chiropractors and other health care providers will offer a range of wellness treatments for the affected area, such as scraping, myofascial release, trigger points, and traditional Chinese medicine, to name a few.

Looking for other forms of treatment for sore muscles? What about red light therapy? For more information, check out our guide on red light therapy for muscle recovery.

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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