Cracking the Code on Cupping
By Robert Silverman, DC, DACBN, DCBCN, MS, CCN, CNS, CSCS, CIISN, CKTP, CES, HKC, FAKTR
Now popular among Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes, cupping is an ancient Chinese healing practice dating at least as far back as 1550 BC.1 While some researchers suggest that cupping, also known as myofascial decompression, and its efficacy may just be a placebo effect, this hasn’t deterred those suffering from chronic pain from seeking its healing powers. Let’s take a closer look at the practice of cupping, its health benefits, and the different types of cupping so that you can decide if cupping is right for you.
What is cupping?
The practice of cupping is based on the belief that certain health problems can be caused by stagnant blood or poor energy flow through your body. To prevent or fix those health issues, cupping practitioners apply cups typically made of glass or silicone to your skin to create a pressure that sucks your skin and fascia—an intercellular signaler, also known as the “Saran™ wrap” of the body for its enveloping properties—inward and draws blood to the affected area. This technique increases your overall blood flow and, subsequently, works to relieve muscle tension, improve circulation, and reduce inflammation.1
During a cupping treatment, a cup is heated or suctioned onto the skin. The cup is often heated with fire using alcohol, herbs, or paper that are placed directly into the cup. The fire source is removed, and the heated cup is placed with the open side directly on the skin. Some modern cupping practitioners have shifted to using rubber pumps to create suction versus traditional heating methods—more on that later. Regardless of the heat source, when the hot cup is placed on the skin, the air inside the cup cools and creates a vacuum that draws the skin, fascia, and muscle upward into the cup.
What are the health benefits?
While more studies are needed to assess its true effectiveness, cupping has already been used as an adjunct therapy for a wide variety of conditions—especially chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain.2 When people are suffering from physical pain, inflammation is often the culprit. Cupping, in theory, improves blood circulation in that area by attracting immune cells to that location to ignite the recovery process and reduce inflammation. Further, cupping excites the cells located within the fascia that then communicate with all other systems within the body. By affecting the fascia, a neurological response is incited; this full-body “pull” is key to healing.
Cupping can also be performed to complement acupuncture treatments, as well as incorporated into deep-tissue, Swedish, or hot-stone massages.
What types of cupping are there?
Cupping practitioners could have slightly modified styles based on their suction-related, area-related, or therapy-related technique, so there are many different types of cupping.1 The two most common types are dry cupping and wet cupping. A third type is called cupping with movement, which is discussed a bit later.
With dry cupping, the heated cup is set in place for a set time—usually between five and ten minutes. Both dry cupping and wet cupping are considered static forms of cupping since the patient lies still while the cups are applied and left on.
Wet cupping follows the same procedure as dry cupping, except that when the practitioner removes the cup, he or she also makes small cuts in the skin to draw blood. The practitioner may then cover the previously cupped areas with ointment and bandages to help prevent infection.
Cupping with movement
A third type of cupping known as Tissue Distraction Release with Movement (TDR-WM), or cupping with movement, involves the patient actively moving the tissue while cups are simultaneously slid over the target area. During cupping with movement, the pressure inside the cup lifts and separates the tissue underneath the cup. The movement of the tissues while the cup is applied may further assist the release of the interfaces between soft tissues. This type of cupping is especially utilized when treating areas such as skin, fascia, neural tissues, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Note that no studies have yet been performed on TDR-WM.
Are there any risks involved with cupping?
Most medical experts agree that cupping is safe.3 Side effects tend to be limited to the pinch experienced during skin suction. Skin may turn red as the blood vessels respond to the change in pressure. Those red circles you’ve seen on the backs of Michael Phelps and other cupping enthusiasts are temporary. Any bruising or other marks usually go away within ten days. The use of arnica-based products directly applied to the cupping site or taken orally help reduce any red circles. You may also experience some itching, as suctioning may rupture mast cells, releasing histamine. Rarely, skin infections have been reported.
Ready to explore the world of cupping? Or are you holding out for convincing clinical research? If you want further evidence of effectiveness before trying cupping, you may have to pass for now. But if you’re like many people suffering from chronic pain and hoping for a natural solution, cupping may just work for you—placebo effect or not.
This content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare professional for advice on medical issues.
Dr. Silverman is a paid consultant and guest writer for Metagenics.
- Aboushanab TS et al. Cupping Therapy: An Overview from a Modern Medicine Perspective. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies. 2018;11(3):83-87.
- Chi L et al. The Effectiveness of Cupping Therapy on Relieving Chronic Neck and Shoulder Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2016;2016:7358918.
- Shmerling RH. What exactly is cupping? Harvard Health Blog. 2016. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-exactly-is-cupping-2016093010402. Accessed December 10, 2018.