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.
For example, you might receive electromyostimulation (EMS), you might be put through some passive range of motion stretches, or you might receive dry needling.
Another potential treatment technique used in physical therapy settings, as well as massage, bodywork, 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.
In this article will cover the basics of muscle scraping, including the benefits of muscle scraping therapy, how it works, and muscle scraping vs. Gua sha.
We will cover:
- What Is Muscle Scraping?
- What Are the Benefits Of Muscle Scraping?
- How to Do Muscle Scraping
Let’s get started!
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.
A muscle scraper is a small tool that is used to perform muscle scraping.
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 injuries, including ankle sprains or other ligament sprains, 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.
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.
What Are the Benefits Of Muscle Scraping?
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.
On the contrary, there are several reported benefits of muscle scraping, including the following:
#1: Increases Circulation
Muscle scraping can increase circulation and blood flow to your soft tissue.
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.
#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.
#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 reducing pain 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.
Evidence suggests that muscle scraping or Gua sha can reduce the magnitude of chronic neck pain.
#4: Can Reduce Inflammation
Studies suggest that muscle scraping promotes the production of anti-inflammatory compounds.
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, as well as heart rate variability.
#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.
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.
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 to do muscle scraping:
- 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.
- Apply a thin layer of emollient (lotion, oil, vaseline) over the area you want to treat. You only need a little.
- 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.
- 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.
- Then move on to the next area. Again, apply moderate pressure and use unidirectional strokes.
- 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.
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.