Every few years, someone in the spotlight sparks even more curiosity and conversation about Chinese medicine. A few years back, it was Gwyneth Paltrow who showed up to a movie premiere in a backless dress, exposing her cupping marks for all to see. Then, Michael Phelps’ polka-dotted back drew a lot of media attention at the Olympics a few years back. Since then, a ton of questions about cupping, and Chinese medicine in general, have been pouring into my email inbox. You all want to know, “Does it hurt?”, “What’s it doing, really?”, and, my personal favorite, “Why the hell would anyone be willing to do that?”.
As a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, I use cupping on the regular to help my patients and myself – from boosting the immune system to expelling blocked areas of stress. But to the public, in the West, cupping is still relatively unknown. It is often misunderstood and seen as kind of, or depending on the circles you run in, very strange.
Bear in mind that cupping carries some quite heavy risks if incorrectly administered, for example Blood Borne Viruses (1). Like other procedures involving blood being drawn such as getting tattoos and piercings, it is important that the equipment used is completely sterilised and/or new and not reused between different people to stop the spread of chronic infections. So always make sure that you find a qualified and verified practitioner and do your research thoroughly should you want to try it.
Here’s a quick rundown of the basics and the benefits of cupping in case you're ready to book your first appointment.
History of cupping – What is cupping therapy?
Cupping has been in continuous use around the world for a long, long time. In ancient China, cattle horns and sections of bamboo were heated to expel the air and create suction on the skin (2), as part of treatment for draining things like boils, snakebites, and even for joint pain.
The oldest written record of the practice in China was found in a tomb from the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) (3) – that’s practically modern, though, compared to the Ebers papyrus, dating from 1550 BC Egypt, which describes the benefits of cupping in detail (4).
While cupping was and continues to be widespread in Asia, it was also part of traditional medical practices throughout the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, and North Africa. All around the world, it was seen as a 'cure-all' and was commonly used to treat pain, digestive problems, inflammation, fevers, menstrual problems, and stagnation in general. Even as recently as the mid-1800s, cupping was in favor and used in the West.
What does cupping help with and does it work?
These days, cupping is practiced primarily by trained practitioners, such as licensed acupuncturists, who have given up the historical use of cattle horns in favor of round suction cups made of glass or plastic to help with all sorts of emotional and physical issues like anxiety or back pain. As in ancient times, it continues to have a wide range of applications, but recent clinical research (5) has demonstrated it to be specifically effective for the following:
1. Chronic lower back pain.
2. Many different pain conditions like joint pain, muscle pain, headaches, menstrual pain and digestive pain.
3. Herpes zoster, better known as shingles.
4. Breathing, whether alleviating asthma, cough, or the onset of a common cold.
5. Fever reduction.
6. Decreasing oxidative stress, by removing oxidants from the body – this is why athletes are fans, as it speeds up exercise recovery.
Recent modern research aside, there are over 2,000 years of written case studies about the clinical applications of cupping, which inform how contemporary practitioners use the therapy. For example, in addition to being a treatment in itself, cupping is a valuable diagnostic tool – not all cupping marks are created equal, and the color and intensity of the marks that appear actually tell me a lot of detailed information about your injury and/or underlying health issues.
What to expect after cupping
You're probably thinking, "Ok, I get it, but does it hurt?" – and the answer is no! The suction creates a unique sensation, often compared to a deep massage, which most patients enjoy and relax into.
You may also be surprised to learn that the marks left are not bruises. Bruises are caused by trauma and tearing of capillaries, the tiny blood vessels under our skin, which are usually then painful or tender to touch as they heal. On the other hand, cupping marks are the result of lactic acid, toxins, dead red blood cells and lymph being drawn out of stuck places. These substances are then removed through the increased microcirculation of fresh blood and lymph stimulated by the cupping. Cupping marks are almost never tender to touch and, visually, look very different from bruises as they heal and clear.
Types of cupping therapy
Your practitioner may use either glass cups, known as fire cups, or plastic suction cups, according to their preference. Depending on your health issue, they may leave the cups in place, known as stationary cupping, move the cups around, known as sliding cupping, or apply and remove the cups in quick succession a number of times, referred to as flash cupping.
How long do cupping marks last?
After your session, the marks left by the cups (if any!) may take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks to completely clear. Plan to keep the marks covered under clothes or a scarf, drink plenty of water, and treat yourself well to support the detoxification process that’s underway.
Who can do cupping therapy
As mentioned above, cupping can come with risks so always make sure that you are dealing with a licensed professional so as to avoid potential Blood Borne Viruses (6). Your practitioner may also decline to use cupping as part of your treatment, as it is not appropriate for everyone. The very weak are not good candidates for this therapy, nor is anyone with any kind of skin injury or open wound.
You’ve now learned quite a bit about cupping therapy and how it can promote healing in a wide variety of health conditions. I hope you are ready to experience it for yourself – make sure to support your local Chinese medicine clinic if you make an appointment! Should you have any questions, ask the advice of your TCM practitioner or your medical physician.
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2. US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28494847
3. College of Integrated Health Sciences: https://kootenaycolumbiacollege.com/articles/chinese-medicine-cupping/
4. Science Direct: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411014000509
5. NCCAOM: https://www.nccaom.org/science-of-cupping/
6. AJICJournal: https://www.ajicjournal.org/article/S0196-6553(14)00946-8/pdf