Picking up in popularity after elite athletes Michael Phelps and Alex Naddour were seen carrying its after-treatment marks in the 2016 Rio Olympics, cupping is still doing the rounds in the newsrooms. It has arguably become one of the most popular wellness and alternative therapies trusted by the likes of A-list celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, January Jones, and as of most recently, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Earlier this month, Dwayne posted a picture with cupping marks on his back on Instagram and shared his experience as a first-time cupper. This has stirred the wellness industry and brought all eyes back on cupping therapy once again. But for many, it’s still a mystery. What is cupping? How does it help? Who is it for? Most importantly, does it really work? And if you are someone asking some of those questions then this article is for you.
Cupping traces its roots in East Asian Medicine (EAM) and was recorded to be first practiced by renowned Taoist alchemist and herbalist, Ge Hong (281–341 AD). With thousands of years behind it, cupping is one of the oldest detoxifying, cleansing, healing, and rejuvenating wellness practices in the world.
What is Cupping?
Cupping is a therapeutic practice that is used to remove toxins from the body’s muscle tissues by creating suction through specially designed cups. This causes improved blood circulation and lymphatic system function thus alleviating pain and enabling better muscle movement.
How is it Performed?
Cupping is performed by creating suction inside of the vacuumed cup placed over the targeted acupuncture point or body part. The upper back, knees, and other joint areas are some of the most common areas preferred by people for undergoing cupping therapy.
What is the Science Behind Cupping?
Below is the step-by-step explanation of the scientific principles behind each step of the cupping procedure:
Step 1: Firstly, the cup’s inside is exposed to an inflamed substance like alcohol, herbs, or paper. The exposure to heat makes the air (gasses) inside the cup become hot and light, and they flow out. Thus creating a vacuum inside the cup. In pump cups, however, the vacuum inside the cup is created electronically.
Step 2: This vacuumed cup is immediately applied on a focused body part. This causes the muscle tissues to stretch as they experience the negative pressure and get sucked inside the cup.
Step 3: Under our skin, thousands of capillaries run through our muscle tissues. The function of these capillaries is to trade oxygen and nutrients for waste products from the whole body. These capillaries are very sensitive to stress. As the stress builds-up and cumulates, these capillaries contract, calcify, get stiff, and die. They can no longer function optimally and thus over time, we create a build-up of poor tissue that feels stiff and hard due to poor blood circulation. This if left unaddressed can lead to fatigue, pain, stiffness, and even brain fog. The suction pressure created with the cup causes the dead capillaries to safely break down and unclogs the lymphatic systems.
Step 4: This causes the breakdown of the non-serving, poor, damaged tissues and starts the regrowth of new, fresh capillaries. The circular after-treatment scar marks thus are just signals indicating the successful breakdown of the non-serving, old capillaries underneath the skin. This improves the blood circulation in the muscle tissues as well as stimulates self-healing and repair.
What are the Different Types of Cups Used in Cupping?
Dating back to the past, cupping was performed using cups made of animal horns and bamboo. At present, different types of cups are used for different cupping techniques, as well as the personal preference of the individual taking the therapy. The most popular ones include:
- Glass cups used in fire cupping
- Pump cups
- Rubber (silicone) cups
What are the Different Types of Cupping?
There are three main types of cupping:
- Fixed Cupping: This is the most popular and frequently opted cupping technique. In this technique, the cup is fixed at one place with carefully moderated suction pressure. It eases the muscle tension in the specific target area and encourages blood circulation.
- Sliding Cupping: Oil is applied on the skin surface of the area to be treated then cups are fixed on it with medium strength. These cups are then moved through the area to be treated in a massage-like manner. This technique is used to treat a broader area of constricted muscular tissues.
- Flash Cupping: The cups are fixed and removed quickly and repeatedly in quick succession over a broad area. It stimulates better blood circulation in the targeted area.
What Should You Expect After a Cupping Session?
People share that after each cupping session they experience a relaxation in their body, relieved stress or pain in their muscles and a refreshed energy. In short, cupping revitalizes them.
As a side effect of toxins and poor tissues removal, circular scar marks are left over the body part where cups are fixed. These marks subside on their own within 7 to 10 days. Occasionally, some people might experience slight dizziness, light-headedness, or skin irritation on the skin around the rim of the cup. Although these are rare side-effects, the user starts feeling normal shortly after the procedure.
How to Evaluate Your After-Cupping Marks?
In general, the darker the post-cupping bruise/mark, the higher the removal of toxins and lactic acid accumulated in that area. To put it simply, more damaged, poor tissues existed in that region that were broken down and cleared out through cupping.
How Long is Cupping Done in One Session?
Depending on your therapist, cupping takes between 5 to 15 minutes a session.
How Many Sessions are Needed for Optimum Results?
Anywhere between four to six sessions are recommended with the gaps of 3 to 10 days in between them for getting the optimum results by cupping therapy. It’s recommended that you wait for the bruising to subside from the previous treatment before having another cupping session.
How Does it Help?
- Reducing inflammation
- Improving blood circulation
- Reducing muscle tension or stress
- Loosening hard, stiff muscles
- Relieving pain
- Boosting immunity
- Supporting better movement and increased range of motion
- Relaxing, refreshing, and revitalizing the body
Who is it For?
Cupping is used for both therapeutic and treatment purposes. In general, it can be received by anyone who is proactive about their overall health and wellbeing. Those who are intentional about providing care and recovery to their muscles take it as a wellness therapy. While for some, it works as an alternative treatment to help with their pain or treatment of any specific medical condition. In the past few years, cupping has also become a popular choice of therapy for cosmetic enhancement and subduing aging signs on the skin such as facial cupping.
Which Medical / Health Conditions Can be Treated by Cupping?
Cupping is used to treat skin diseases, respiratory, musculoskeletal, digestive, reproductive, blood related disorders, gynecological disorders, and allergic conditions. Some medical conditions that cupping helps in treating are:
- Body pain: headache, lower back pain, neck pain, and knee pain
- High blood pressure
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Diabetes mellitus
- Facial paralysis
- Cough and dyspnea
- Lumbar disc herniation
- Cervical spondylosis
The Emergence of Facial Cupping
Other than body muscle tissue cupping that is used for relaxation and healing purposes, people (especially women) are increasingly turning to facial cupping as a natural anti-aging treatment. In facial cupping, the size of cups is smaller, the pressure is milder and the cups are constantly moved over the skin surface in a carefully moderated manner. Effective face cupping procedure has shown to deliver the desired results such as skin tightening, sharpened jaw-line, and a fresh and younger look besides skin rejuvenation.
What are the Scientific Studies and Evidence That Supports Cupping?
In a research conducted by U.S. physiologist and acupuncturist, Helena Langevin, cellular-level changes have been observed using cupping. She states in her report that therapeutic practices such as cupping, acupuncture, and massage significantly reduces inflammation in muscle tissues, relaxes them, and promotes healing. This happens as the inflammatory cytokines (chemical messenger) reduces while the cytokines promoting relaxation and healing increases, the study explains.
Another report published in PLoS One in 2012 based on the review of 135 studies on cupping concluded that cupping, when complimented with other treatments such as acupuncture and medications, can be effective in treating the below medical conditions, besides others:
- Herpes zoster
- Facial paralysis
- Cervical spondylosis
These findings were similar to another report published in 2015 in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine that also noted that cupping therapy can help in treating acne, herpes zoster, as well as relieving pain. Likewise, there are many studies that support the effectiveness of cupping therapy.
Who Should Avoid Cupping?
People who face any of the below conditions should avoid cupping:
- Excessively sensitive, dry, or cracked skin
- Open wound or ulcer
- Bleeding disorders
- Severe anemia
- Muscle dystrophy
- Excessive swelling
- On blood-thinning medication
- Experienced recent trauma
- An internal organ disorder
- Fractured bone
- Dislocated joint
Extra Caution Should be Given to the Following Group of People:
- Children: Children under the age of 4 years should not receive cupping therapy. In older children, it should be given for a very short period of time.
- Seniors: Our skin and muscles become more fragile and vulnerable as we age. Additionally, any undergoing medications can impact as well.
- Pregnant women: Should avoid cupping on the abdomen and lower back.
- Women who are currently menstruating i.e., on their periods.
How to Prepare for Cupping?
Asking the right questions is essential before deciding to go for cupping. Here are some things to keep in mind and enquire about:
- Does your cupping practitioner hold a trusted certification or training?
- How much experience do they have?
- What conditions do they specialize in treating?
- What methods of cupping does the practitioner use?
- Is the cupping facility clean?
- Does the practitioner follow proper hygiene and safety measurements?
- Do you want to undergo cupping to treat any specific condition?
- Is there any specific condition that you have which can benefit from cupping?
- Do you fall in any of the high-risk groups that should be extra cautious?
- Do you have any condition that makes cupping unsafe for you?
How to Make the Most of Each Cupping Session?
Below are some points to keep in mind for getting the best results from cupping:
- Prepare for your cupping sessions by considering the above questions
- Stay relaxed
- Keep an open and positive outlook
- Stay well hydrated
- Supplement your cupping therapy with acupuncture therapy: acupuncture like cupping is another very well-known treatment with its roots in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It helps to relax our nervous system and makes the body release its naturally occurring pain killers and feel good hormones. Cupping therapy and acupuncture are often referred together since acupuncture amplifies its effect and benefits.
If you’re curious about cupping and not in the highly vulnerable group, then give it a try. Overall, it’s a safe healing therapy that takes care of your system. Like “The Rock” says, “we only get one body, so we gotta take care of it.”
Angela Sinnett is an acupuncturist, herbalist, healer, nutrition specialist and founder of Magnolia Wellness. She has spent almost two decades as an energetic healer. Having always been passionate about the healing arts and making the journey fun, Angela cultivates her treatments with love and understanding, illuminating the beautiful place where the depths of the soul meet the physical body. When she is not doing cartwheels with her three daughters, Angela loves seeking the true wonderment of life.