I’d like to start off by sending a shout-out to the 2016 Summer Olympic Athletes that were spotted sporting (pun intended) cupping marks that quickly became local and national news stories. The healing modality known as “cupping” - which is a new concept to many even though it is actually thousands of years old - has been gaining some much deserved buzz over the last few years. I witness there being a shift towards and growing interest in healthcare that is more integrative and takes a holistic approach. And it certainly always helps spark interest when professional athletes and celebrities (ahem, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston) have been photographed with cupping marks and open advocates of the technique often used by practitioners of Chinese Medicine. Whenever I have cupping marks on me I joke that along with helping me feel good, it’s a marketing tactic because it always leads to inquiries and conversations about Chinese Medicine and my acupuncture practice. And I can’t recall many instances where a patient didn’t feel relief (often immediate) after having it as part of their treatment – many of whom often now request it and are on the #teamcupping train. However, there’s more to it than just putting suction cups on the body. Here’s a breakdown that will hopefully shed some light on the phenomenon.
A (brief) history: One of the earliest documentations of cupping dates back to 300 AD by a Taoist herbalist. While cupping is common practice in China and other Asian countries, it also has been used extensively throughout parts of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Until relatively recently (as in the early 1900’s), it provided an inexpensive form of medicine to those that couldn’t afford the unsubsidized doctors fees, visits, etc. There was a reliance on these “folk remedies” often passed on through generations. What’s old often becomes new again (hello, bell bottoms) and cupping is certainly back…and hopefully here to stay.
So what exactly is it?: The actual concept and procedure is really quite simple. Glass or plastic cups are placed over various areas of the body, including on meridians and acupuncture points. A vacuum is created either with fire or a pump, leading to a suction effect on the skin where it’s being placed. Drawing up the skin opens up the pores, and helps to stimulate the flow of blood, energy and oxygen to the area. One fundamental concept in Chinese Medicine is that where there is lack of blood flow and energy (often referred to as “Qi” or “Chi”), there is pain and disharmony. Cupping is helping to open up these areas of blockages and congestion by pulling them to the surface and out of the body – thus restoring the free flow of blood and energy and alleviating pain. Those prominent circular marks are the results of a micro trauma effect the suction has where it breaks up tiny capillaries on the skin (it sounds kind of dramatic, I know) that look like bruises. However they are often painless and fade within a week or so. The color variance signifies the amount of pressure used and time left on the skin, as well as how congested that area was prior to cupping. The darker the mark, the more suction pressure and/or congestion.
Benefits: There are oh so many! Cupping is a non-invasive and effective way to treat a wide variety of conditions. While helping alleviate muscle tension and pain is probably it’s most notable credential, it is also used to help anxiety and depression, stress, fatigue, headaches, coughs and other respiratory disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, and even cellulite reduction, to name a few.
What to expect: Cupping is a technique most commonly administered by an acupuncturist or bodywork therapist. After a health history intake, your practitioner would place cups on selected areas of the body and generally leave them on from 5-15 minutes. The back is probably the most common site, but it can and is also used on various other areas of the body like the legs, arms, and sometimes abdomen. While a strange and often foreign sensation at first, most people think it feels good though can be intense just as deep tissue massage can be. The effects – particularly with pain – are often felt immediately. Cupping may be offered as a service separate from acupuncture or bodywork therapy, but is more commonly included in a full treatment.
Precautions: All in all, cupping is a very safe form of healing therapy. However, there are things to consider which is why it is important to go to a trained practitioner. It should not be used on areas of inflamed skin, directly over large veins and arteries and bony landmarks, on those that have a very weakened immune system, the very elderly, or the low back or abdomen of pregnant women.
Cupping is an effective, safe, non-invasive treatment modality that has finally shed its mysterious vibe and come into the light. Questions? Comments? Want to try it? Feel free to leave a comment or schedule a cupping session to treat yourself like an Olympian.
Emily is a licensed acupuncturist with a Master of Science degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine. She no longer is practicing acupuncture at Wellness Minneapolis.