Cupping 101 (What It Is, How it Works & Is It Right for You?)

Cupping. It’s been all over the news recently, ever since several Olympic athletes (most notably, Michael Phelps) were shown sporting dark circles all over their arms, backs, and shoulders. So what is this supposed remedy, and most importantly, does it even really work?

Learn everything you need to know about cupping therapy, including- what it is, the benefits, how it works and if it is right for you or not.

A Brief History of Cupping

Cupping is trendy now, but it’s not new. It’s really quite old-ancient, in fact. Cupping refers to an ancient Chinese practice that has its earliest “official” roots set in the lifetime of a famous Taoist alchemist and herbalist, Ge Hong (281-341 A.D.), who has the most well-known recorded mention of it. The method back then was a bit different-it used animal horns (not cups) to drain pus and blood from boils. For the Chinese, it became a method to dispel “stagnation” below the skin, such as stagnant blood and lymph, and improving the flow of energy throughout the body. In this sense, it is much like acupuncture.

It should be noted that some researchers believe that it dates back even further than its use in Asian cultures, all the way to ancient Egyptians using it in 3,000 BC. Still others think the ancient Greek’s were the first to use it.

When all is said and done, regardless of who used it first, cupping is an ancient healing remedy that took-like many old rememdies- some popular culture to bring it back to life.

What is Cupping?

The term cupping therapy actually refers to a number of different techniques, but they all share one common theme, and that is that a vacuum, or suction, (also known as “negative pressure”) is created inside of a cup pressed on the skin. It is different from massage in that, rather than the muscles being pressed down, they are pulled up.

Different methods of cupping use different materials, sizes, and types of cups. For example, some cups are bell shaped, others round, some are glass, others plastic, and so on.

There are ten types of cupping therapy commonly acknowledged amongst those who practice, but below three of the most general and practiced forms.

cup suction

Dry Cupping: The most basic technique. Any combustible material (usually a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, but herbs or paper are also sometimes used) is ignited and placed into the cup. As the flame goes out the cup is quickly placed over the selected area of the body. The cooling air and lack of oxygen create a slight vacuum, pulling skin, muscle, and fascia up into the cup. The cup can be left on for a range of time, depending on the person providing treatment and what you’re trying to accomplish. Typically, the whole process (from heating the cup to the removal) is around 15 minutes.

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Wet Cupping: The same technique as dry cupping is involved, and the cup left on for about 3 minutes. After the cup is removed a sterile lancet is used to make a small incision and another cup is placed over the incision, drawing out a small amount of blood. This is thought to help “purify” blood of toxins and old blood/lymph.

Moving/Stationary Cupping: The cups, while still forming a seal and vacuum, are slid over the muscles so that multiple areas can be treated. Stationary cupping is just that-stationary. The cups are not moved.

Note: To reduce the risk of burns and fire hazard, and create powerful suction, more and more people will use silicone or plastic cups with a hand pump to remove the air from the cup. This also allows for people to utilize cupping without the need for a second person.

What Is Cupping Used For?

Some claim it will cure colds, and arthritis. Others, particularly when it comes to wet cupping, feel it draws toxins out of the blood. Personally, I put stock in one particular use, and that is in treating musculoskeletal pain. The most research lies on this subject, although research is still a bit spotty, and anecdotal evidence is the primary argument for cupping in general.

How Does It Work?

When the body is undergoing a lot of stress-whether it’s the rigorous training routine of an Olympic athlete, or the grueling hours of a jam-packed work week-muscles can get “tight.” Small trigger points of bound up muscle (also called “knots”, although they technically are not) cause pain and sometimes inflammation as circulation becomes poorer and tension builds in the area. By pulling the muscle and the fascia (the thin sheathe which surrounds organs and muscle) one can “break up” the tense muscle. The improved circulation from cupping is also thought to help increase recovery time for strained muscles and help them heal if they have been overused. The thought here is that the more oxygen rich fresh blood you can get circulating through an area, the quicker it will heal/function optimally.


So… Those Marks

The marks left by cupping are not bruises, per say. Bruises are caused by blunt trauma to the skin that cause capillaries and blood vessels to burst beneath the surface. Cupping does not involve any force that causes a bruise, as it is typically defined.

Those who practice cupping classify marks. The darker they are, the more “stagnant” your blood was and the poorer condition that area is in. The darkness shows that the disease or underlying problem condition has been pulled to the surface of the skin and new blood can get underneath and provide fresh circulation.

cupping bruise

If you are healthy and all is well below the surface, the marks are supposedly only going to be light red/pink and go away within minutes.

There is no solid research to back up what the color of the marks mean, and personally, I feel it’s simply that people’s bodies are all unique and react in different ways.

What Does Cupping Feel Like?

It feels a bit strange at first. Sort of like a dull pinch as the suction is created, and then-especially if you have multiple stationary cups-a weird weight over your muscles that is most noticeable if you move the muscles the cups are placed over. Once you get used to the sensation, it really isn’t bad, and many people will find relief as their tight muscles are lifted and loosened up. Moving cupping has always provided the most relief for me.

Is It Right For You?

I think it is worth exploring all manners of alternative remedies and healing methods, as everybody has different things that work for them. Traditional massage works better for my tight muscles than cupping, but I know of people who experience differently. In terms of it increasing athletic performance, I can’t really testify. At a higher level athletes may very well notice a difference in their performance-I do not.

Personally I think it is best when used in conjuncture with another traditional healing method, such as acupuncture. Also, when the places where the cups were removed are briefly, gently, massaged afterwards.

For those reasons-and for the relaxing atmosphere- I suggest going to a responsible practice to first get a feel for the cupping experience before deciding to go for an at home kit.

“All That and a Bag of Cups”?

If you want my personal opinion-when all is said and done I still like my “old school” massages best. I think that cupping can certainly be helpful for different people in different ways-but I would suggest being careful of going into it with unrealistic expectations. I think expectations as much as results can make alternative remedies harder to get to stay mainstream-especially when they’ve been brought about by a boost in popular culture.

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By Claire Goodall

Claire is a lover of life, the natural world, and wild blueberries. On the weekend you can find her fiddling in the garden, playing with her dogs, and enjoying the great outdoors with her horse. Claire is very open-minded, ask her anything 🙂 Meet Claire

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