What is Cupping Therapy & How Does it Work?

The History of Cupping Therapy

Back in 2016, as swimmer Michael Phelps was competing in his fifth Olympics — and adding to his record-breaking collection of gold medals — all people were talking about was, “why is he covered in dark circles?”

Those circles were the result of cupping therapy, and recently we’ve seen everyone from celebrities to Olympic athletes using it. While cupping therapy might seem to be a recent health trend, its origins date back thousands of years — just like acupuncture. In fact, the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical scroll believed to be written around 1,500 BC, describes the use of cupping therapy.

While the treatment itself may seem mysterious to most people, it is a largely useful and beneficial practice. This article will explain what cupping therapy is, how it works, and the benefits you may experience from the treatment.

A man receiving cupping therapy

What is Cupping Therapy?

Cupping therapy is a form of alternative medicine that originated in the Middle East and Asia, and has recently gained popularity in Western cultures. Cupping involves placing cups on the skin in a way that creates suction. The suction causes your skin to rise, your blood vessels to expand and increases local blood flow to help relieve tightness, stiffness and pain.

Cupping has also been shown to improve blood circulation and reduce inflammation through two main types of therapy.

With dry cupping, a glass cup is placed on the treatment area (upside down, with the opening against the skin). A pump or manual method is used to create suction, which draws the skin up into the cup.

What Can I Expect During a Cupping Treatment?

The suction cup is often heated with fire using alcohol, herbs or paper. Then, the heat source is removed, and the warm cup is placed with the open side directly on your skin. Some cupping practitioners prefer to use rubber pumps, instead of heat, to create suction.

After applying the cups, your therapist will leave them in place for 5–20 minutes, depending on your specific need. At the appropriate time, your therapist will release the pressure from the cup and remove it. The release of pressure often feels calming, and you’ll notice your body feels lighter and less tense.

Sometimes during treatment, your therapist will apply lotion or oil to your skin and create a lesser pressure so the cups can glide across your skin. This is called “moving cupping.” Moving cupping is often used for treating digestion, inflammation, and congestion. Your therapist will glide the cups toward your lymph glands as a way of helping your body remove toxins and waste through your lymphatic system.

Therapist providing a cupping treatment to a patient

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    What Are the Benefits of Cupping?

    The primary goal of cupping is to increase blood circulation to where the cups are placed. This process helps relieve muscle tension, promotes cell repair, and reduces inflammation. Whether you're an Olympic athlete, a famous celebrity, or you're just looking for a treatment to help provide some pain relief, cupping is a great choice. Some other benefits that you may experience with cupping therapy include:
    • Promotes the release of toxins
    • Reduces the appearances of stretch marks and scars
    • Increases blood flow and blood circulation
    • Boosts cellular immunity
    • Reduces inflammation and muscle tension
    • Promotes relaxation via your parasympathetic nervous system
    • Eases and reduces pain
    • Promotes cell repair

    Is Cupping Therapy Painful?

    The suction might feel tight at first while it draws your skin up into the cup. However, that tight feeling passes quickly as your therapist moves on to place the next cup. Depending on your personal pain tolerance, you may find cupping therapy slightly uncomfortable for a few minutes as you get used to the feeling of your skin stretching. Most people report only some mild discomfort during treatment.

    Does Cupping Therapy Have Side Effects?

    Cupping is safe, as long as you go to a trained health professional. Still, after treatment, you could have mild discomfort and slight burns in the area where the cups touched your skin.

    Those circular marks that may appear after treatment are stagnation marks. It’s an indication that toxins and stagnation are being pulled to the surface of your body and restoring healthy blood flow. Cupping can stimulate the tissues to release toxins, activate the lymphatic system, clear colon blockages and activate the skin.

    It’s important to note, however, that those circular marks are not bruises.

    Close up shot of cupping treatment

    What Happens After Cupping Treatment?

    Your therapist should give you a detailed after-care guide at the end of your session, but here are a few general tips:

    • Hydrate. You may feel a bit dizzy at the end of your cupping session. Just like a deep tissue massage, your body is working through the effects of the treatment. Make sure to drink plenty of water to help your body along in this process.
    • Avoid showering. Cupping opens your skin’s pores. It’s best to let the treatment area remain dry and warm for a few hours before showering.
    • Avoid alcohol. Alcohol has a dehydrating effect on your body, so it’s important to avoid drinking after your cupping treatment.
    • Rest. You may feel fatigued or experience flu-like symptoms the next day. This is normal. It’s due to your body processing and expelling the toxins that were released during your cupping session. Take it easy and get extra rest to allow your body the healing time it needs.

    After treatment and recovery, you may feel less stiff and more limber and relaxed. You may also experience more specific results based on your treatment plan and individual needs.

    What is Cupping Therapy Used For?

    Researchers have studied cupping primarily in China, finding it to be helpful in treating conditions like:

    • Arthritis & fibromyalgia
    • High blood pressure
    • Migraines
    • Allergies
    • Shingles
    • Cough
    • Asthma
    • Chronic pain
    • Blood disorders
    • Anxiety & depression

    Is Cupping Right For Me?

    Anyone can feel the benefits of cupping therapy. If you’re suffering from an injury or any of the common conditions listed above and if you are open to alternative medicine and treatment, cupping could be for you. It’s also used by many elite-level athletes to boost their performance by improving blood flow and oxygenation of the muscles. Be sure to seek out a trained professional for treatment.

    Cupping is also covered by most insurers. If you have coverage for a registered acupuncturist, you’re probably also covered for cupping therapy. Be sure to check with your insurer first. In addition to acupuncturists, cupping can also be provided by licensed physiotherapists, chiropractors, or massage therapists who have cupping certification.

    Before beginning any alternative therapy, remember to let your doctor know that you’re planning to incorporate it into your treatment plan.

    Therapist heating glass cups for a cupping treatment

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