It seems like cupping has spiked in popularity ever since Gold-Medalist swimmer Michael Phelps showed up to his 2016 Olympic swim races donning those distinct circular marks. More recently, former NFL Patriots player James Harrison was featured in National Geographic sharing how he relies on cupping to recover from the demands football took on his body. When asked how he felt following his treatments, he said, “[all] I know is before I get treated, I HURT, and after, I feel better.” Even Katy Perry had cupping (and acupuncture) done in her latest music video.
Of course I am ecstatic to see celebrities and professional athletes trusting in, and reaping the benefits of, these traditional therapies. However, just because cupping has had some time in the spotlight does not mean it’s new. In fact, cupping therapy has been practiced for thousands of years, with some of the oldest records dating to 1550 B.C. in Ancient Greece and 300 A.D. in China.
From Horns to Jars
As Traditional Chinese Medicine evolved, so did cupping. Bamboo, stone jars, and animal horns were eventually replaced with the specialized glass cups used today. Although cupping was practiced for centuries in China, it became an official therapeutic modality in hospitals during the 1950s. To this day, cupping remains a hallmark offering of Chinese Medicine, along with other soft-tissue modalities like Gua Sha and of course, acupuncture.
Rest assured, the good news is you do not need to be a pop icon or professional athlete to benefit from cupping. To see if cupping is right for you, here is everything you need to know. So let’s break it down.
Start at the Beginning: What is Cupping?
Cupping therapy is a soft tissue modality that uses negative pressure to gently lift the skin and underlying connective tissue (called fascia). This lifting dynamic enhances blood flow in tight, painful, and restricted muscles by creating space for old, oxygen-depleted blood to leave so that fresh, oxygen-rich blood can enter. In Chinese Medicine, cupping promotes the free flow of Qi and blood by remove blockages and stagnation along the meridians that cause pain.
Think about it: when your body is stressed from repetitive movements, exercise, emotions, or even from being stuck in one position for a long period, your blood vessels and muscles constrict. This reduces circulation leaving old, nutrient-depleted blood and metabolites like lactic acid to accumulate in the tissue which leads to pain (tension, soreness, stiffness).
Where Do the Cups Go?
Cupping is most commonly done along the back, shoulders, and posterior neck, but sometimes the forearms, hamstrings, and lower legs (calves) are done as needed. When I work with patients, I use an integrative perspective and apply cups based on the meridians AND muscles involved in their condition.
When Is Cupping Most Effective?
Cupping is ideal for when you have muscles that are too tight, sore, stiff, or painful—and the discomfort is hard to shake. If the pain keeps coming back, stretching does not help, or you have “knots” that are stubborn to get rid of, cupping would be worth a try. After your first appointment, I recommend that patients wait until their marks fade away until doing another session.
How Does Cupping Work?
How the cups are applied depends on the type of material being used. For example, there are cups (mostly plastic, some glass) that have air nozzles at the top so that your practitioner can manually create the suction through a tube or attachment device. That is one way. The other is with glass cups and fire. Actually called “Fire Cupping,” this is the traditional way cupping has been done for millennia and is the type that requires formal training. Fire Cupping was part of my curriculum in grad school and we were tested on performing it safely and effectively before starting clinical Internships.
Creating Suction with Fire
First I apply a massage oil to the areas that we will be cupping over (this makes it so I can move the cups once they are in place). Next, I take an alcohol-soaked cotton ball and light it (not to worry, the flame is small and controlled). Next (and of course away from your body), I insert the flame in and out the cup which burns up all of the oxygen inside, creating the vacuum seal so the cup can stick. Once the cups are placed, you will feel some pressure, but it should never be painful. The sensation is like a massage in reverse: instead of kneading and compressing sore muscles, the cups lift the fascia to give the the lactic acid room to leave. In any case, I always adjust the pressure based on my patient’s comfort level.
During a back treatment, for example, once one or two cups are placed, I usually start by sliding them along the length of the muscles/meridians involved which allows me to identify areas of stagnation and poor bloodflow—which are seen in the dark pink to red/purple coloration people get from Cupping. The darker the marks, the worse the circulation is!
Once these areas of stagnation are identified, I place several more cups and leave them in place for a few more minutes. Cups do not need to be on very long to be effective. During this time patients feel relaxed and some have said they felt like they were floating in the best kind of way.
The marks that appear are an anticipated and therapeutic side effect that fade within a few days to a week, depending on the person.
Please make sure you get cupping done from a formally-trained practitioner (through a degree program or an accredited continuing education course). Some people think cupping is easy to learn and do, but it’s not, and there is so much more to it. It takes a trained practitioner to be aware of when to not do cupping, areas to avoid, and overall safe application. Getting any type of cupping therapy done by an untrained individual carries risks that are not worth it. Do your research and ask your practitioner questions. Cupping is safe, effective, and relaxing when done right—and in the right hands!
When It Should Be Avoided:
Cupping should never be done over fragile, broken, sunburned, or edematous (swollen) skin. Areas with major arteries are a major NO. Cupping is not advised during pregnancy and is typically off-limits for those with cancer, organ failure, heart disease, hemophilia, have a pacemaker or who are taking blood-thinning medications.