Ancient Practice, New Energy: Demystifying Cupping

Do you remember seeing Michael Phelps with all those circular, purple bruises on his back and arms during the Olympics? Remember learning that it was cupping, a therapy in which heated glass cups are placed on the skin, creating suction along the way? Remember thinking he was crazy for basically voluntarily getting beaten up on a massage table? What I remember is thinking it was so strange that there was such a to-do about it; I have been doing cupping—specifically fire cupping—in my practice for 10 years, and have successfully treated athletes and people with a multitude of conditions.

A lot has changed even just from 2016; people are becoming more and more open to alternative therapies, medicine and practices. They are taking herbal supplements for colds, trying CBD oil to ease their anxiety, turning to acupuncture for migraines, joint pain and more. Of course, this has been happening for years, but it is more visible today; people are openly and doggedly searching for health and wellness.

So what is cupping and is it only for athletes—and most importantly, is it right for you?

Cupping is a traditional Chinese medicine technique in which special glass, plastic or bamboo cups are placed on the skin over acupuncture points and/or muscles and heat or air is used to create suction between the cup and skin. The suctioning cups are left on the body for between 5 and 15 minutes. Fire cupping, the kind I practice, is done with glass cups and fire to create the suction that keeps the cups on the body. Cupping does not hurt, but you will feel a tightness or suction feeling on your skin, and a release when the cups are moved.

How Does Cupping Work?

This technique puts into practice the old Chinese medical maxim: “Where there’s pain, there is stagnation. Remove the stagnation, and you remove the pain.” Cupping moves stagnation (knots in the muscle fascia, stuck blood energy, emotions, pathogens), which is also a blockage of qi, out of the body and brings it to the surface to release it, making room for new circulation in the body. There are five meridian lines on the back, and these are where the cups are usually placed. The reason those purple marks, or sha in TCM, may appear: the suction causes the capillaries right under the skin to rupture, creating, basically, a large, circular hickey. However, over time, if you do cupping regularly, it will no longer leave these marks and this is a sign that you’ve cleared out all the stagnation. I usually recommend at least 3-5 sessions of cupping therapy in order to experience the full effects: improvement in skin color, detoxification, improved metabolism and digestion, reduction in asthma and other respiratory ailments, and relief from muscle spasms or pain, among other benefits. That being said, you should feel some relief right away after just the first cupping session.

Who should do cupping? 

Cupping is definitely not just for athletes, although many athletes—like Phelps—swear by it to reduce soreness and speed up muscle healing. Traditional scientific avenues seem to be skeptical of cupping’s effectiveness; there have been few studies conducted on it and most scientists or doctors that you’ll find commenting on it online write it off as a placebo treatment. The Atlantic even published an article entitled, “Please, Michael Phelps, Stop Cupping” and claimed that cupping actually caused blood clots. One of the main reasons for this skepticism may be the difficulty of running studies that have a control group; if you’ve ever had cupping done to you, you know that it’s almost impossible not to know when you’re being cupped. But there are some exciting studies that are corroborating cupping’s effectiveness: this study from 2014 found a potential positive short-term effect of cupping therapy on “reducing pain intensity compared with no treatment, heat therapy, usual care, or conventional drugs.” Yes, bruises—which are what those purple circles are—are blood clots, but this is ok because the purple or red/pink circles that may appear after cupping are a good thing! The darker the marks, the more stagnation was broken up, which makes room for new energy and blood to flow through the area, benefiting circulation.

And while I’m not generally in the business of writing off other therapies—if something works for you, that’s fantastic!—I will say that most western medical practitioners, the same ones who scoff at cupping as well as acupuncture and herbal remedies, are pretty much at a loss when it comes to chronic pain: prescription pain medications, most often opioids, seem to be the only treatment that western medicine has come up with to manage chronic pain, which, as we all now know, has led to our current opioid crisis. (Read this New Yorker article on the Sacklers, the family that developed the prescription pain killer OxyContin, one of the main culprits in the current crisis.)

So if you’ve gone to your primary care physician and they’ve given you a pain med, or you find yourself whipping out your inhaler or nebulizer more and more; or you do hours of stretching or physical therapy but you can’t get rid of soreness, ache and swelling, talk to a licensed acupuncturist about the possibility of cupping.