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What Is Cupping Therapy?

In China, cupping therapy is considered a special healing skill, and it’s often passed down from one generation to the next. Ancient texts state that cupping was originally used by Taoist medical herbalists and was a popular way to treat ill royals and elitists.

Cupping healers throughout the years have successfully treated a variety of symptoms and diseases that couldn’t be cured by conventional methods, including pulmonary tuberculosis, colds, back pains, muscle spasms and pinched nerves. Traditionally cupping has also been used in patients with blood disorders (like anemia), rheumatic diseases like arthritis, fertility problems and mental illnesses.

While cupping therapies using heat have the longest history in Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea, a similar practice called “wet cupping” has also been used in the Middle East for centuries. Recently, cupping has become more popular in the U.S. and other Western nations too, as some doctors have started implementing cupping and acupuncture into their patients’ treatment plans for naturally alleviating symptoms of pain, congestion and chronic infections without the need for drugs. Today, you can find cupping therapy offered in many Traditional Chinese Medicine centers, some massage therapy locations, as well as certain holistic health centers.

Cupping therapy supporters believe that the practice helps remove harmful substances and toxins from the body, which in turn improves immunity.

Wondering if cupping really works? A 2012 report published in the Journal PLoS ONE reviewed 135 studies on cupping therapies published between 1992 and 2010. Researchers concluded that cupping is more than just a placebo effect — it has benefits similar to acupuncture or herbal treatments for treating various digestive, skin, hormonal and inflammatory diseases. (7)

The British Cupping Society, which promotes cupping and helps patients find qualified cupping practitioners, states that cupping therapy can treat a variety of conditions safely, including: (8)

  • Respiratory infections

  • Blood disorders, such as anemia and hemophilia

  • Joint pain caused by arthritis and fibromyalgia

  • Migraine and tension headaches

  • Muscle aches and stiffness

  • Fertility and gynecological disorders

  • Skin problems such as herpes, eczema and acne

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

  • Mental disorders, anxiety and depression

  • Food allergies and asthma

  • Varicose veins and cellulite

Cupping Therapy vs. Acupuncture: How Are They Similar and Different?

Cupping and acupuncture are similar because they both promote optimal “Qi” by drawing energy and blood flow to areas of the body that are experiencing inflammation, prone to low lymphatic circulation or experiencing poor blood flow. Sometimes both practices are done together by placing an acupuncture needle into the patient’s skin and then covering the needle with a cup.

In terms of their history and benefits, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) cupping and acupuncture both help dispel stagnation, which can lead to disease. Cupping and acupuncture follow the body’s lines of “meridians” along the back, promoting relaxation and breaking up tension while boosting energy flow (known as Qi, the “life force”). In other words, they’re useful for blood and lymph flow, which is how they might help reduce swelling and treat various infections or diseases.

Together, these methods resolve disturbed functions of Zang-fu, a collective term in TCM for internal organs, including the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys, along with the gallbladder, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and bladder.

Both practices are prescribed by TCM healers for treating the common cold or flu, fighting chronic stress, and promoting healing following pneumonia, bronchitis and musculoskeletal injuries. They do this by helping accumulated toxins to be released, blockages to be cleared, and veins and arteries to open up.

The theory behind using acupuncture and cupping simultaneously is that together they target tissue or muscles that have tightened up in response to an injury that has caused fibers to stick together and white blood cells to become stuck. Acupuncture uses tiny needles to increase the flow of blood to the affected area, but in people with injuries, performing cupping along with acupuncture might be more beneficial for easing swelling. That’s because increased blood flow alone won’t solve a painful tissue or muscular problem; the area also needs to be drained for the body’s healing process to begin and for extra fluids, white blood cells and heat to be released.

How Cupping Therapy Works

According to Jennifer Dubowsky, a licensed acupuncturist and cupping practitioner, the purpose of cupping is “to enhance circulation, help relieve pain, remove heat and pull out the toxins that linger in your body’s tissues.”

Cupping involves the use of cups applied to a patient’s back in a series of positions in order to produce suction. The vacuum effect targets areas of skin and deep tissue within the back, which is beneficial for dulling pain, breaking up deep scar tissue, and relaxing tender muscles or connective tissue. In this way, cupping is almost like the opposite of getting a massage since instead of applying pressure to swollen areas, it draws pressure out. For this reason cupping is often done in patients who experience chronic lower back pain, muscle knots, tightness due to anxiety, swelling or stiffness.

The most popular technique for cupping, called “dry cupping” or “fire cupping,” involves a trained practitioner first placing cups on the patients back and then carefully heating the cups using fire. Sometimes a special cupping “torch” is used to light the cups on fire safely, or in other cases the cups are heated in hot water or oil. The hot cups are sealed off and held in place for five to 15 minutes on the patient’s back while they cool down, which produces a vacuum effect. This is considered a type of “fixed cupping” because the cups aren’t moved around but rather sit still.

The cups contract while on the patient’s skin, which causes suctioning, so the skin is then pulled into the cup, stretching out skin tissue and improving blood flow, which facilitates healing. To light the cups on fire, normally a cotton ball is soaked in rubbing alcohol and then lit, placed into the cup very quickly and then removed. The cups are then placed down on the patient’s skin, and as oxygen is removed, suctioning naturally occurs. “Moving cupping” is similar but involves applying massage oil to the skin first, which helps the heated cups glide over tense areas on the patient’s back.

Back when cupping first originated, animal horns, clay pots, brass cups and bamboo were used to create the cups, but today cups are commonly made out of more durable materials, such as glass or heat-resistant plastic and rubber. The exact type of cup used depends on the practitioner’s preference and the patient’s condition. Cups come in different materials, shapes and sizes, which means some are more useful for targeting certain ailments than others. Nowadays, fire suction cups made out of glass and plastic are the most common, followed by rubber cups. Silicone, bio-magnetic, electric and facial cups are other options.

There are several different cupping techniques used by practitioners today. While cupping using fire is the most common type (usually called “dry cupping”), two less common practices are called “bleeding cupping” and “wet cupping.” Heated and then cooled cups are the traditional way to create suction, but the vacuum effect can also be created with a mechanical suction pump, which is used in most wet cutting techniques.

The terminology used to describe various cupping techniques can get confusing, but “wet cupping” is the name given to the method used most often in parts of the Middle East. Wet cupping, or “bleeding cupping” as it’s sometimes called, is always fireless but involves drawing the patient’s blood using a pump. Wet cupping involves “blood-letting,” usually by making a tiny incision into the patient’s skin before the cup is applied and blood is drawn.

In this technique, the practitioner creates suction with his or her hands and uses needles or a pump to remove a small amount of the patient’s blood, which is thought to improve energy in the body and remove toxins. Tiny pricking needles are inserted into the skin to draw three to four drops of blood before the cup is applied over the site. Or, a pump is used exclusively instead, which might be a “modern” type, such as an electromagnetic pump, or a more traditional pump that uses magnets and gravity.

Is Cupping Therapy Safe?

Cupping might sound a bit scary to someone who’s new to the practice, but rest assured that cupping isn’t usually painful and most trained practitioners are very careful to use sterile equipment. During a cupping session, it’s common to feel some heat and tightness around the cup, but many people find this to actually be relaxing and soothing.

Cupping has come a long way since it first originated in terms of hygiene and improved safety standards. Today, most cupping practitioners use rubber gloves, new and sterile needles (if wet cupping is being done), and alcohol swabs to reduce the risk for contamination or blood transfer. As cupping becomes more popular on a global scale, more nations are mandating that safety guidelines be carefully followed, which is good news for patients.

Cupping is considered a safe practice, but it’s important to find a well-trained practitioner who is licensed and follows legislated guidelines. While the different cupping techniques seem to be similar in terms of effectiveness, dry cupping is likely the safest since it doesn’t involve needles or blood. Make sure to do your research and find an experienced practitioner who is well-trained in using cupping tools, which will ensure you get the most benefits from your session and aren’t at risk for injury.

Cupping should be avoided if the patient is experiencing a skin infection, inflammation, ulcer or sensitivity. It’s also not recommended for pregnant women since not enough research has been done to shown it’s safe. Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for skin discoloration to develop after cupping, which can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. For people with bleeding disorders or who are prone to bruising, cupping should be avoided. It can cause minor and temporary bruising in some people, but this can become problematic for those who don’t heal well from bruises.

Cupping Therapy Takeaways
  • It’s common for cupping to be used along with massage therapy, essential oils, acupuncture or even as an adjunct to “Western medicine” treatments.

  • Here are five ways that cupping therapy might be able to help you: helps reduce pain, promotes relaxation, boosts skin health, helps treat respiratory issues and colds, and improves digestion.

  • Cupping and acupuncture are similar because they both promote optimal “Qi” by drawing energy and blood flow to areas of the body that are experiencing inflammation, prone to low lymphatic circulation or experiencing poor blood flow. Sometimes both practices are done together by placing an acupuncture needle into the patient’s skin and then covering the needle with a cup.

  • The types of cupping therapy include dry cupping, fire cupping, bleeding cupping, wet cupping and moving cupping.

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