Cupping therapy is all the rage these day’s, marks can be seen on professional athletes, celebrities, or just the person sitting next to you at the gym. So what exactly is cupping therapy, and what does it do? Here is a brief introduction to cupping therapy.
What is Cupping Therapy?
Cupping therapy is an adjunctive treatment under the umbrella of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The way that I describe it to my patients is that it is like a reverse deep tissue massage, and is a form of bodywork. It is the only type of bodywork that creates a negative pressure on the body, as opposed to a positive pressure. Most bodywork is a positive pressure on the body, meaning that someone is pushing into you. With cupping therapy we create a vacuum into either glass fire cups, or plastic suction cups, which pulls the tissue of the body up and away from your skeleton creating a negative pressure.
What are the benefits of cupping?
The vacuum of the cups creates space in the tissue, which can help the lymph to move or drain. This can stimulate your immune system, which is why people recommend cupping to those who are beginning to feel sick. Cupping also pulls old stagnant blood out of the muscles, and pulls freshly oxygenated blood through the muscles, which creates a lubricating effect for the tissue, and increases circulation. The pull of the suction also helps to pull lactic acid and toxins that have built up in the muscles and adipose tissue out, and redistribute those toxins into the blood stream, so that your body can detox them naturally through your liver and kidney’s. It is why it is important to drink a lot of water after any kind of bodywork really, but especially cupping to help flush out any toxins in the blood stream. Lastly, cupping helps to break up scar tissue and adhesions that have formed on the muscle fibers, or fascia layer, and in turn helps to reduce pain and tension in the body. The number one benefit that people report is a reduction in overall pain and tension.
What is the difference between Fire and Suction Cupping?
The main difference between fire and suction cupping is really technique. The mechanism of action for the two is pretty much the same, but there are some major differences.
Fire Cupping is the traditional form of cupping used in traditional Chinese medicine. Fire does not ever touch the body of the patient and so the patient should not feel the flame. Mainly, a flaming cotton ball held in forceps is placed in the opening of the glass cup, which burns up all the oxygen in the cup. The cotton ball is then quickly removed, and the cup is simultaneously placed on the body of the patient, which creates a vacuum. The amount of suction you get with this type of cupping is solely based on the technique of the practitioner. If the practitioner moves too slowly, the seal can be very weak. The suction into the cups can be manipulated a bit if it is too strong, by carefully letting the air out very slowly.
Often times with fire cupping we will also do what we call moving cupping. In moving cupping lotion is first applied to the body of the patient, followed by placing the cups. The cups are then moved across the body, often along main muscles groups, while suction is maintained. This type of cupping can feel a bit more intense, but is very helpful for really breaking up stubborn pain and tension in the muscles.
Suction cupping, also known as Korean suction cups, is a bit more beginner friendly. The beauty of suction cupping is that a tool called a suction gun is used to create the suction into the cups. This tool helps the practitioner to really manipulate the suction, making it stronger or lighter based on how the patient is feeling. In my practice I consider one pump of the suction gun to be very lite pressure, two pumps to be medium pressure, and three pumps to be strong pressure. In practice I usually don’t go much higher than 3 pumps, because skin is fragile and very strong pressure can create blisters if you are not paying attention. Suction cupping is great for a more pin pointed effect, a cup can literally be placed over a knot in the muscle and left there. In my practice I do not do moving cupping with suction cups because the plastic edge is not as smooth and can feel more abrasive to the skin. Instead I use more cups and leave them in one place once they are applied to the patient.
What does cupping treat?
People seek out cupping for many different reasons. Most people are having some sort of muscle pain, and use cupping as a quick solution to decrease overall pain and discomfort. Some people want to detox their body, and get cupped to help jumpstart that process. Often times if someone is feeling sick, they use cupping as a way to jumpstart their immune system. Cupping is also great to help break up stubborn phlegm in the lungs, and reduce the chest pain associated with a cough or upper respiratory tract infection. Because cupping therapy does drain the lymph it can also help to reduce puffiness or swelling.
What are the side effects of cupping?
The most common side effect of cupping is red, or purple marks that can appear on the skin after a cupping session. These marks are referred to as cupping bruises. Cupping bruises can be very faint, or not appear at all. They can also be very dark red or purple. The bruises associated with cupping are really dependent on where your body is in the moment, and is not a reflection on whether the treatment has “worked” or not. Some people who say that they “bruise easily”, develop no bruises from cupping at all, and others get very dark marks, it just depends on where your body is that day. Generally, people who are very active and work out a lot, people who have some sort of active muscle spasm, or people who don’t often get body work will develop dark bruises. In Chinese medicine we think of the bruises as being stagnation that we have moved out of the muscles. Fun fact about cupping, the more you receive cupping, the less the bruising becomes. The idea behind that is that you have less stagnation to move out of the muscles the more you receive cupping. The bruising will slowly fade, and usually is completely gone within seven to ten days. If the bruising is very dark it may feel a little tender to the touch for the next day or two. Some tenderness, or even itchiness after cupping is totally normal, and generally goes away pretty quickly. Overall the muscle tension should feel better, even if the marks feel tender.
What should I do after cupping?
Immediately following cupping, it is important that you keep your cupping marks covered. Cupping opens your pours, and exposing them to cold can cause your muscles to seize up again, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve through cupping. Also, it is a good idea to relax immediately following a cupping treatment. Cupping is like a massage, and so you want to give your body some time to unwind from the treatment. Because of this, I do not recommend that people work out immediately following a cupping treatment. As I stated before, it is also important to drink a lot of water after a cupping treatment in order to help our bodies flush out all of that lactic acid we just got moving.
Where does one do cupping?
Cupping therapy can be applied to any place on the body that has a large muscle group. Areas of the body that do not have large muscle groups don’t really have much tissue for the cups to grab onto. However, I have used very small cups on bottoms of feet, or ankles before. Most commonly cupping is done on the back and legs, but it depends on what the desired effect is. If someone is looking for relief from pain in a specific area, then cupping is focused to that area. There is a school of thought that cupping can help break up adipose tissue and reduce cellulite on the legs. For immune boosting cupping is usually done higher up on the neck and back. There is even a form of cupping called facial cupping, where cups are very lightly moved across the facial muscles with specific facial cups in order to drain puffiness and boost collagen production in the face. The technique for facial cupping is very specific, and should only be done by a practitioner, or with training and direction from a practitioner.
Who can do cupping?
Anyone can receive cupping. Cupping is an effective pain management tool for all types of people. There are however, some contraindications for cupping. For example, you would not want to apply cupping therapy directly to an open wound, or to red and swollen joint. If you have any questions as to whether cupping therapy would work for you, I would encourage you to consult a licensed practitioner. Acupuncturists, or practitioners of East Asian medicine are almost all well trained in cupping therapy, and their medical license covers the therapy. Massage therapists also commonly undergo training in cupping therapy, and hold a license to do body work. Chiropractors and Physical, as well as some medical doctors can also become certified in cupping therapy. It is a federal law, that anyone doing manual therapy to someone’s body must hold a medical license in order to do so. Because of the popularity of cupping therapy, many people are buying at home cupping kits. I do not recommend doing cupping on yourself or others, but if you do have an at home kit, please consult a medical practitioner to make sure that you are doing it safely. Do no ever pay for, or receive cupping from someone who is not licensed to do so. Overall cupping therapy is a very safe modality, with very little adverse side effects, but there are trainings on the specialization for a reason.
Danielle Reghi is a licensed Acupuncturist, and holds a Masters in traditional Chinese medicine from Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. She is the owner of Zen Space Wellness, and Cupping Studio where she currently practices. She is originally from Hawaii, but is living in Portland Oregon with her husband, two dogs, one cat, and studio baby. Feel free to follow Danielle on Instagram at: @cuppingqueenpdx , @zenspacepdx , or @cuppingstudio . Her business webpages are: www.zenspacepdx.com, and www.cuppingstudio.com.