When I talk about Chinese medicine, most people think about acupuncture. What they don’t realize is that we practitioners have a number of tools in our therapeutic toolbox beyond acupuncture to help our patients heal. One of those little-known tools is called cupping.
I have to thank celebrities, low cut gowns, and awards galas for bringing any amount of awareness of cupping in the general population. Most notably, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Anniston have been seen at these events sporting several large, perfectly round marks on their backs that reveal that they had recently been cupped, most likely by their acupuncturist.
What is cupping, exactly? And why do it? Here are some things to know about this interesting modality.
- Cupping is a method of healing that involves placing cups on your skin in which a vacuum has been created—essentially large suction cups. It’s the pulling action from the suction that promotes healing (more on this later), and is usually done on larger areas of your body, such as your back. Cups come in several sizes, so your arms, legs, and over your pectoral muscles can also be cupped. The sensation is a little bit like a reverse massage; with the cups you feel pulling instead of the pushing sensation you get from a massage.
- Cupping has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Originally cups were made out of bamboo, earthenware, or cow’s horn. Today, most of the cups used are made of glass or plastic. Traditionally, the vacuum is created by lighting a small fire inside the cup, from an alcohol-soaked cotton ball, or simply swabbing the inside of the cup with alcohol. The flame uses up all the air in the cup, and then it’s placed on your skin. This is called fire cupping, and while it sounds scary, it’s actually safe, as the fire is out before the cup touches your skin. Another more recent method of creating suction is through the use of a gasket and vacuum pump to take the air out of the cups—in this case the cups are plastic.
- There are a couple of options as to how your practitioner can use the cups. The simplest is that the cups are left in place for about ten minutes or so, and then removed. Sliding cupping is also an option, in which a small amount of oil is used and the cups are slid across an area, usually your back, while retaining suction. Another option is called wet cupping or bleeding cupping, in which a point has been bled with a sterile needle or lancet, and then the cup is placed over the area.
- What’s the point of cupping? Actually, there are many. First, cupping moves energy and increases circulation to the area being cupped. By doing so, it brings new blood and nutrients to the injury to support healing. It also opens up your pores and releases toxins. Cupping creates what’s called a micro trauma—a tiny injury that gives your body the message to heal. This is important, because sometimes your body gets into a pattern where it just doesn’t heal. By creating a micro trauma, it moves your body out of the status quo and gets it to start healing. The purpose of bleeding cups is to clear heat in the body, and relieve stagnant conditions.
- Cupping can be used for a wide range of conditions, but is most frequently used for pain. It can also be used, especially on the upper back and upper chest for asthma and other respiratory conditions. In addition, cupping is frequently performed down either side of the spine to stimulate the energetic pathways and spinal nerves as a way to promote health.
- Cupping leaves a mark. Depending on the strength of the vacuum, the mark can be anywhere from light red to very dark purple. The marks are perfectly round, and pretty much the size of the cup that was used. During cupping, small capillaries are broken, which causes the discoloration, and while this may sound like a bad, thing, it’s actually what promotes the healing process.
- Here are some don’ts: Cupping shouldn’t be performed over any kind of open skin or lesion. It shouldn’t be done over areas of edema, large blood vessels, or varicose veins. It shouldn’t be performed on pregnant women. In addition, people who are easy bleeders, have any kind of bleeding disorder, or are taking blood thinners, shouldn’t be cupped.
- One more interesting point—it’s possible to be too hairy to be cupped. That’s because a lot of hair makes it difficult, if not impossible to get a good vacuum for the cupping to be effective. The options are to shave the area to be cupped or forego cupping for some other healing modality.
As a practitioner, I have found that once I cup a patient, they love it and often want to be cupped at every appointment. While the effects of cupping can be subtle, most patients say that it loosens up their tight muscles and feels calming. In addition cupping can relieve pain, release toxins, and free up stagnant energy. Most patients will say that after being cupped they feel rejuvenated and relaxed. So what are you waiting for? Book a cupping session today and discover what this ancient modality can do for you.