Benefits Of Cupping You Wouldn't Expect

By: Leslie DeMatteo, LMT, MS


"By now, everyone has seen pictures of Olympic athletes with dark circles on their backs and shoulders from cupping. But what exactly is it – and is it safe?"

Benefits Of Cupping You Wouldn't Expect

The History of Cupping

Records of cupping were found from as early as 28 AD, when early cupping used animal horns to drain the toxins from snakebites and skin lesions. The use of horns evolved into the use of bamboo cups, then eventually these where replaced with glass cups. Now we have plastic cups that have a valve, which can be used to create the suction.

Cupping was first practiced in China and then in Egypt, where medical texts discuss using it for fever, pain, vertigo, menstruation imbalances and to accelerate the "healing crisis." From Egypt, cupping was introduced to the Greeks and eventually Europe, and was even used in America in the late 1800s. In fact, breast cupping for lactation dysfunctions has evolved into the breast pump we are familiar with today. As early as the 1940s, cupping sets were available from medical supply companies.

Cupping is done by creating negative pressure inside the cup. When using glass cups, the use of an alcohol pad, or gauze soaked in alcohol, held in pincer scissors and then lit on fire is put into the cup to heat and expand the air. (It is strongly advised to use locking pincer scissors and not just tweezers in order to ensure the flaming alcohol pad or gauze is not dropped unintentionally.) When the cup is then quickly placed on the skin, it pulls the skin up into the cup as the air cools. Modern plastic cups have a valve and pump that can be used to control the amount of suction. Whichever method is used, cupping uses negative pressure to produce its therapeutic results.

Intensity of Cupping

The intensity of cupping depends on how quickly the cup is placed on skin after the flame is removed, the size of the cup, and if the practitioner is using a set with a valve, how much air is removed with the pump. If the negative pressure is too much, a small bit of air can be allowed in to reduce the vacuum by pushing the skin aside from a very small part of the rim of the cup. Often this breaks the suction completely and the cup needs to be reset, but with practice this will allow just a bit of air in reducing the pressure.

Surprising Uses of Cupping

Cupping is used to drain fluids and toxins from various areas of the body, break up adhesions and lift and pull connective tissue, increase blood flow to stagnant muscle tissue and stimulate the nervous system. Cupping can be used for fibromyalgia patients, to reduce post-injury scar tissue, for chronic pain and post-surgery adhesions. Cupping is commonly used for bronchitis and asthma. In fact, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, cupping was done regularly in households across the country to treat these conditions, as well as for chest colds and flu.

Furthermore, cupping is used regularly in traditional Chinese medicine for digestive conditions and diarrhea, shoulder pain and frozen shoulder, headaches and migraines, infertility and menstruation problems, colds, acne, insomnia and soft tissue injuries. Sometimes acupuncture needles are used in conjunction, with cups being placed over the inserted needles.

Styles of Cupping: Moving Cupping

There are two styles of cupping: moving and stationary. To perform moving cupping, a liniment, cream or oil must be applied to the skin before the cup is placed in order to allow for the cup to slide. Once the cup is placed, the practitioner will glide the cup up or down along the meridian or muscle pathway, breaking up adhesions and lengthening tissue by "pulling" it up and along. This is also an excellent way of "scooping" fluid out of an area of stagnation. Moving cupping is an excellent method of draining pathogenic factors (Wind, Cold, Damp and Heat) from the body by bringing it to the surface so that it can dissipate.

Styles of Cupping: Stationary Cupping

Stationary cupping is used in Chinese medicine to clear stagnation in the blood and release internal pathogenic factors. Weak, or light cupping, is used to treat conditions where Blood and Qi are sluggish or deficient. Medium cupping is used for stronger patients, including children over seven and when the patients' energy is good, as medium cupping acts to tonify the Qi. Strong cupping is draining and is used to move very stagnant Blood and Qi and eliminate pathogenic factors. Cups are placed over acupressure point or trigger points based on the condition being treated.

Cups can be left on the body from 5 – 15 minutes for stationary cupping and moving cupping can be done as long as suction is maintained. Cupping is relatively safe, but does leave significant dark circles and stripes on the surface of the skin. With the application of negative pressure, blood is pulled from small capillaries leaving the dark circles we are seeing on the Olympic athletes. While harmless, these marks can appear quite disturbing. It is important that clients know this will happen before the treatment!

Precautions and Contraindications

Cupping should always be done by a practitioner who is familiar with the techniques of cupping as well as the acupressure points and concepts of traditional Chinese medicine. While no more dangerous than acupuncture or oriental style massage (shiatsu or thai massage), it is still necessary to understand the precautions and contraindications of massage therapy and acupuncture before applying cupping to clients.

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