TCM: Acupressure and Bodywork

Welcome back to our tour of Traditional Chinese Medicine! I already wrote about some of the ways acupressure can be used at home to help manage pain and stress, but the possibilities of acupressure go far beyond self-care. Techniques such as cupping, gua sha, and tuina are all forms of acupressure and bodywork that can be done by a trained practitioner and have different impacts than other TCM treatments. In this post I’m going to focus on the acupressure and bodywork techniques that I use in the clinic.


Cupping uses glass cups that are heated and then applied to the patient’s body. The heat used creates a vacuum seal by burning out the oxygen. Several cups may be placed at once and they are usually left in place from a few seconds up to several minutes. Cupping changes the pressure of that area of the body, creating more space. It’s especially useful for pain relief and for breaking up mucus and phlegm in the lungs, encouraging the lungs to expand more, and stimulating a more productive cough in order to clear out the phlegm. I can also treat abdominal pain from constipation by using acupuncture to stimulate qi to open the area and using cupping to create more space in the abdomen. The patient may be able to feel things starting to move again! Take back pain, for another example: cupping brings blood to the surface and encourages the fascia to relax. Cupping can seem dramatic when you first see it, because the heat is created with flaming cotton balls. It’s safe in the clinic with a trained doctor, and also a poster child for “don’t try this at home!”

Gua Sha

Gua sha is a technique that uses plastic, ceramic, metal, or bone as tools to scrape the skin. It’s often used for pain relief and respiratory ailments. “Gua” refers to the actual scraping technique that is used. “Sha” refers to the reddening of the skin; a different effect is seen if the root issue is acute versus chronic, for example.  During the first few treatments, the sha shows me where the stressors are being held internally. A patient with chronic digestive issues will show very dark discoloration around the regions of the back that are connected to the stomach, pancreas, and liver, for example. Gua sha performed on the back can confirm which systems are the most stressed, as well as what muscles have either low tone or high tone. They’re not singing muscles! Muscle tone refers to the level of tension in a resting state as well as the ability to contract on demand.


Tuina is a form of bodywork that is used to address issues that other branches of TCM aren’t as effective for. It’s usually not emphasized in the US because other systems of bodywork, such as physical therapy, massage, and chiropractic, are so prevalent here. Tuina has 3 basic systems: a bonesetting system that is similar to chiropractic treatments, but includes soft tissue and channel manipulation as well; gentle acupressure techniques that create a more subtle and visceral effect by causing vibration throughout the body and the organs related to the treated areas to relax; and manual therapy or bodywork that is similar to massage.  Tuina is added to a treatment when the muscles around an injury are so tight, they do not release from the acupuncture. Specific acupressure techniques will release a tight muscle immediately. Tuina is also applied before an acupuncture treatment, especially if the patient is stressed out about getting a treatment. This will help to calm the mind so that the body is comfortable getting the acupuncture.

As you can see, acupressure and bodywork techniques in TCM are varied and widely applicable! Make an appointment to learn more—singing and juggling flaming cotton balls not required.