Cupping Therapy: Benefits and Applications

Cupping therapy has recently become a trendy practice among famous athletes and Hollywood stars. You may have even seen your favorite players with strange red marks on their bodies. But cupping therapy is far from new. Rooted in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures, this therapeutic modality claims to offer incredible pain-relieving benefits. But does cupping therapy work? Let’s explore this ancient alternative medicine and how it could help you.

Key takeaways:

What is cupping therapy?

Cupping therapy is a type of alternative medicine practice that has its roots in ancient times. The process involves placing cups onto your skin to create a suction effect, which brings blood to the surface of the skin and removes toxins. The cups can be made from a variety of different materials such as glass, bamboo, silicone, and ceramic.

How cupping therapy is performed

During a session, the therapist will put a flammable substance such as alcohol, herbs, or paper into a cup and set it alight. Once the fire has gone out, the cups are placed on the skin. As the air cools inside the cup, a vacuum is created and gives the suction effect.

More modern cupping methods involve the use of a suction pump to create the vacuum instead of using heat.

Types of cupping therapy

The table below describes the four main types of cupping therapy.

Type of cupping therapyMethod
DryOxygen is removed from the cup using either heat or a suction pump to create a vacuum effect.
WetA needle lightly punctures the skin under the cup, drawing a small amount of blood and bringing toxins out through the wounds.
RunningInvolves moving the cups around the body after oil application to massage target specific areas.
FlashFast, repeated suction and release on different areas of the body.

Cupping therapy marks

The marks left on the skin look like they would have been made by an incredibly painful procedure. They are a result of intense vasodilation, which opens up the blood vessels in your skin, drawing more blood to the surface. However, they are nothing more than giant hickies and should disappear within 10 days.

When was cupping therapy invented?

Cupping therapy was written about in one of the most ancient medical texts ever discovered. The Ebers Papyrus describes cupping therapy being used by the Egyptians in 1550 B.C. The practice has been observed in the Chinese and Middle Eastern traditions throughout history.

It is believed that cupping therapy increases the flow of qi energy in the body. Qi is a Chinese word that means life energy. Proponents of cupping therapy also believe that it balances out the Yin and Yang—or positive and negative—energies, creating equilibrium and enabling the body to fight off pathogens and recover from aches and pains more effectively.

Does cupping therapy work?

Cupping therapy aims to release toxins and increase blood flow by bringing blood close to the surface of the skin—and sometimes even creating small punctures through which the toxins can leave the body. Those who support cupping therapy believe that it can alleviate a whole host of ailments, such as:

  • Blood disorders. Cupping therapy claims to help anemia and hemophilia.
  • Skin issues. Eczema and acne might be improved with this therapy.
  • Mood disorders. Supporters claim it can reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.
  • Rheumatic disease. Anecdotal evidence suggests arthritis and fibromyalgia symptoms could be relieved with cupping therapy.
  • Gynecological issues. Practitioners and patients have reported improvements in fertility and other gynecological problems.
  • Muscle recovery. Some athletes who use cupping therapy have reported that it helps them to recover after intense sporting events.

Whilst there are many claims made by cupping therapy practitioners and those who go for regular treatments, there is very little peer reviewed science to back those claims.

Does cupping therapy hurt?

You have most likely seen the circular red marks on your favorite celebrities and sporting heroes—and they do look sore. But is cupping therapy painful?

Providing you have a certified cupping practitioner performing the therapy, you shouldn’t feel pain. If you opt for wet cupping, you might experience a small sting as your skin is slightly punctured by a needle, but it shouldn’t last longer than the initial prick.

You may also feel a slight stretching sensation as your skin is suctioned upwards inside the cup. But again, this shouldn’t be painful.

Who does cupping therapy?

Many spas and massage therapy centers will offer cupping therapy as a treatment. It is often combined with acupuncture and deep tissue massage. Cupping therapists will have had to undergo training to receive certification and have insurance to be able to practice cupping therapy. Make sure your therapist is certified before undergoing treatment.

When is cupping therapy used?

Cupping therapy has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments, from lower back pain to cellulite. The cups can also be placed on major acupressure points—therefore digestive, skin, and other conditions which are often treated with acupressure may find some relief with cupping therapy.

When choosing your therapist, it’s important to ask which conditions they have experience treating. Among many others, the following conditions may find relief using cupping therapy:

  • Sciatica
  • Lower back pain
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Acne
  • Coughs and bronchial congestion
  • Knee pain
  • Anemia and hemophilia
  • Asthma
  • Hypertension
  • Cellulite

Again, the evidence for the effectiveness is mostly anecdotal. More quality research is needed.

Cupping therapy vs acupuncture

There is often a lot of questioning around which therapy is more effective. Both cupping therapy and acupuncture claim to improve the qi or energy flow around the body. They also both aim to address the balance of Yin and Yang energies in the body.

Many practitioners offer the two therapies simultaneously. Together, they can target tissues and muscles that have tightened. The tiny needles used in acupuncture directly stimulate the autonomic nervous system and increase blood flow—however, blood flow alone won’t resolve an uncomfortable muscular issue.

The cupping therapy can then be used together with acupuncture to help drain the excess toxicity and heat from the affected area, promoting an improvement in inflammation and pain.

How to prepare for a cupping therapy appointment

Ensure that cupping therapy is suitable for you before booking a session. If you are unsure, speak to your primary health care physician. Cupping therapy should not be used on areas of the body which are affected by:

  • Skin ulcers
  • Sunburn
  • Recent bodily trauma
  • Skin inflammation or lesions

You should also check your cupping therapist has the relevant qualifications and is a certified practitioner. It’s also worth asking which method they use and if they have any experience treating your particular condition.

Remember, while cupping may be an ancient alternative healing technique with many benefits, there is very little scientific research to back up the claims made by its supporters. If you decide to give it a try, make sure you use it as a complementary addition to the treatment plan outlined by your medical team or doctor.

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