Cupping therapy is an ancient form of healing that has been used for many different purposes more than thirty-five hundred years. Mention of its use can be found in ancient Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Egyptian cultures, including reference to its use in one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, the Ebers Papyrus.
It is an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine that is based on the Chinese surmise that illnesses are triggered when “chi” or “qi”, the life force of our body, becomes disrupted due to some injury or ailment. Cupping therapy works to reinstate equilibrium, thus curing the patient and helping with pain management.
The therapy obtains its name from the specialized cups used by practitioners to generate suction over affected points of the patient’s body. Cups can be made of different materials including earthenware, glass, bamboo, or silicone.
Types of cupping
There are two main types of cupping: dry and wet. During both methods, the practitioner puts a flammable substance like herbs, paper, or alcohol in a cup and sets that on fire. After the fire goes out, the cup is placed upside down on the patient’s skin. A vacuum is created once the air inside the cup cools off. The cup is usually kept on the patient’s skin for up to 3 minutes.
In recent times, some therapists have used a rubber pump to create a vacuum inside the cup. Other practitioners use silicone cups, which can be moved from place to place on the patient’s skin to generate a massage-like feeling.
In the wet cupping method, tiny, light cuts are made on the patient’s skin by using a tiny scalpel. After that, a second suction is made to drain out a small amount of blood.
An alternative type of cupping is called “needle cupping.” In this type of cupping, acupuncture needles are first inserted into the skin. The heated cups are then placed over them.
How does cupping therapy work?
How is suction created?
As we age, our body starts to break down, including a decrease in blood flow, adhesions in fascia, and loss of muscle. By implementing cupping therapy, some of these effects can be reversed. In this type of therapy, small cups made out of bamboo, glass, potter, or iron are used to generate vacuum and subsequent suction. Either a cotton swab dipped in alcohol is kept in the cup or materials such as alcohol or similar things are used to rub the bottom of the cup. Some practitioners also use paper and herbs for this purpose. The materials are then set on fire and after the fire goes out, the cup is cautiously placed on certain areas of the patient’s body in an upside down manner. Once the air inside the cup cools down, a vacuum is created that triggers an adequate amount of suction, which makes the blood vessels just below the skin enlarge. The cups are usually kept in place for up to 3 minutes at a time and the practitioner may prefer to use a number of cups at various points in different meridians simultaneously. Even though the cups are heated, there is hardly any chance of experiencing a burning sensation of the skin.
How does the treatment work?
Cupping therapy treatments are based on an act that is the opposite of massage treatments. That is because placing the cups on the skin applies vacuum pressure and generates suction on the skin as opposed to massage therapy which involves applying downward pressure on the skin and underlying tissues. Different cupping sets are used to drag the skin upwards using the vacuum pressure. After the vacuum is created, therapy cups may also be moved throughout the skin in a method called sliding cupping.
When fresh blood is forced into the skin tissues encompassing the cups, the body begins to create new blood vessels, which is called neovascularization. These newly formed blood vessels are capable of filling the tissues with oxygen and nutrient. Sterile inflammation is something that happens early in the cupping therapy. According to common belief, inflammation is detrimental for our body, but in this case, inflammation is considered as the initial line of healing. At this stage, our body releases platelets, white blood cells, fibroblasts together with other healing compounds that promote healing.
During the vacuum process, different layers of tissues get separated which can trigger tearing and microtrauma. Next, the tissue and fascia can be stretched significantly with cupping. This causes microtrauma and new blood vessels start being developed, which facilitate the flow of fresh nutrients and blood into the injured tissue. When a significant number of therapy cups are placed on the back or around the damaged area, it can start to stretch the connective tissues together with fascia for improved movement. According to reports of many recipients, cupping therapy works faster and leaves a longer effect compared to massage.
How can cupping help us to overcome injuries?
Here’s how cupping therapy can help you to get rid of old as well as new injuries:
- Increasing tissue delivery and oxygenation
- Increasing circulation
- Triggering microtrauma and helpful inflammation
- Eliminating old stagnant blood
- Stretching connective tissue and fascia
- Developing new blood vessels
What are the ailments cupping can help?
The ancient cupping therapy comes with a multitude of health benefits together with the capability of curing a significant number of ailments. This therapy is widely considered as an advanced therapy option because it helps to eliminate toxins from our body while relieving tight and tense muscles and joint pain. This non-invasive physical therapy yields the following positive results related to relaxation and pain management.
- Rheumatic diseases – Fibromyalgia and arthritis
- Blood disorders – Hemophilia and anemia
- Skin conditions – Acne, eczema, urticaria etc
- Infertility problems as well as other gynecological problems like Leukorrhea, irregular menstruation, etc.
- Facial rejuvenation and wrinkles
- Mental problems such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and migraines
- Varicose veins
- Respiratory illnesses such as asthma, congestion, bronchitis, allergies, common cold, etc.
- Boosting the immune system
- Pains like back pain and headache
- Helps in weight loss and eliminates cellulite
- Ease stiff muscles
- Can help in treatment of cancer
- Gastrointestinal disorders such as dysentery, diarrhea, frequent, or severe gastritis
- Damages to soft tissues
- Facial paralysis
- Acute conjunctivitis
- Sore throat
- Headaches and fever triggered by infection
- Frozen shoulder
- Cervical spondylosis
Who can and cannot receive the treatment?
Cupping therapy can be applied to help in pain management and healing processes related to the following disorders:
- Orthopedic conditions
- Neuromuscular disorders
This therapy isn’t advisable for people with following conditions:
- Menstruating or pregnant women
- Those suffering from muscle spasms or bone fractures
- Patients having cancer which is spreading from one’s body part to another
- Patients who bleed easily or have high fever together with convulsions
- Patients having high obesity or those who are very thin
Are there any side-effects?
Though cupping therapy is considered safe as long as it’s performed by a trained therapist, the following side-effects can be experienced in the area where the therapy is applied:
- Mild discomfort
- Skin infection
We’ve mentioned earlier that there are two major types of cupping therapy—dry and wet. Here’s what you may expect after application of each type of therapy.
- A slight twinge
- A circular bruise coupled with a little amount of swelling
- Skin infections may occur in case the instruments aren’t sterilized properly
- Tiny cuts
While the side-effects of this ancient therapy are quite minimal, it’s always advisable to undergo treatment offered by a trained professional therapist. To lower any possible side-effects, patients need to follow the instruction of the practitioner related to the precautions that need to be considered during the post-treatment phase.
Editors note: Here is a sample of scientific studies on cupping therapy from PubMed that may be of interest:
- New is the well-forgotten old: The use of dry cupping in musculoskeletal medicine. (A 2016 review that suggests that “there is initial scientific evidence that dry cupping is able to reduce musculoskeletal pain.”)
- Is cupping an effective treatment? An overview of systematic reviews. (A 2011 meta-analysis of systemic reviews (SRs) concludes that “based on evidence from the currently available SRs, the effectiveness of cupping has been demonstrated only as a treatment for pain, and even for this indication doubts remain.”)
- Dry cupping for plantar fasciitis: a randomized controlled trial. (The results of this small 2017 “support that both dry cupping therapy and electrical stimulation therapy could reduce pain and increase function in the population tested.”)
- The Effects of Cupping Massage in Patients with Chronic Neck Pain – A Randomised Controlled Trial. (This 2017 small observational study concluded that “cupping massage appears to be effective in reducing pain and increasing function and quality of life in patients with chronic non-specific neck pain. But the authors noted that more rigorous studies are needed to confirm and extend these results.”)
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine is another source of information on the topic.