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What Is Cupping Therapy?

What is cupping?

The origins of cupping
A famous Taoist alchemist and herbalist, Ge Hong, reportedly first practiced cupping. He lived from A.D. 281 to 341.

Cupping is a type of alternative therapy that originated in China. It involves placing cups on the skin to create suction. The suction facilitates healing with blood flow, as well as the flow of “qi” in the body. Qi is a Chinese word meaning life force.

Cupping increases blood circulation to the area where the cups are placed. This can relieve muscle tension, which can improve overall blood flow and promote cell repair. It can also help form new connective tissues and create new blood vessels in the tissue. People use cupping to complement their care for a host of ailments and conditions.

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Cupping types

What are the different types of cupping?

Yin, Yang, and cupping
Many Taoists believe that cupping helps to balance Yin and Yang, or the negative and positive, within the body. Restoring balance between these two extremes is thought to help with the body’s resistance to pathogens, as well as its ability to increase blood flow and reduce pain.

Cupping was originally performed using animal horns. Later the “cups” were made from bamboo and then ceramic. The suction was primarily created through the use of heat. The cups were originally heated with fire and then applied to the skin. As they cooled, the cups drew the skin inside.

Modern cupping is often performed using glass cups that are rounded like balls and open on one end. There are two main categories of cupping performed today:

  • dry cupping, which is a suction-only method
  • wet cupping, which may involve both suction and controlled medicinal bleeding

Your practitioner, your medical condition, and your preferences will help determine what method is used.

Treatment

What should I expect during a cupping treatment?

During a cupping treatment, a cup is placed on the skin and then 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 your skin. Some modern cupping practitioners have shifted to using rubber pumps to create suction versus more traditional heat methods.

When the hot cup is placed on your skin, the air inside the cup cools and creates a vacuum that draws the skin and muscle upward into the cup. Your skin may turn red as the blood vessels respond to the change in pressure.

With dry cupping, the cup is set in place for a set time, usually between 5 and 10 minutes. With wet cupping, cups are usually only in place for a few minutes before the practitioner removes the cup and makes a small incision to draw blood.

After the cups are removed, the practitioner may cover the previously cupped areas with ointment and bandages. This helps prevent infection. Any bruising or other marks usually go away within 10 days of the session.

Cupping is sometimes performed along with acupuncture treatments. For best results, you may also want to fast or eat only light meals for 2 to 3 hours before your cupping session.

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Conditions

What conditions can cupping treat?

Cupping has been used to treat a wide variety of conditions. It may be particularly effective at easing conditions that create muscle aches and pains. Since the cups can also be applied to major acupressure points, the practice is possibly effective at treating digestive issues, skin issues, and other conditions commonly treated with acupressure.

In 2012, the journal PLoS One published a review of cupping therapy that suggests its healing power may be more than just a placebo effect. The researchers found that cupping therapy may help with the following conditions, among others:

  • herpes zoster
  • facial paralysis
  • cough and dyspnea
  • acne
  • lumbar disc herniation
  • cervical spondylosis

The authors acknowledge that most of the 135 studies they reviewed contain a high level of bias. More studies are needed to assess the true effectiveness of cupping.

Side effects

Side effects

There aren’t many side effects associated with cupping. The side effects you may experience will typically occur during your treatment or immediately after.

You may feel lightheaded or dizzy during your treatment. You may also experience sweating or nausea.

After treatment, the skin around the rim of the cup may become irritated and bruised in a circular pattern. You may also have pain at incision sites or feel lightheaded or dizzy shortly after your session.

Infection is always a risk after undergoing cupping therapy. The risk is small and is usually avoided if your practitioner follows the right methods for cleaning your skin and controlling infection before and after your session.

Other risks include:

  • scarring of the skin
  • hematoma (bruising)

Your practitioner should wear an apron, disposable gloves, and goggles or other eye protection. They should also use clean equipment and be vaccinated to ensure protection against certain diseases, like hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Always research practitioners thoroughly to protect your own safety.

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Warnings

Things to keep in mind

Most medical professionals do not have training or a background in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Your doctor may be cautious or uncomfortable with answering questions related to healing methods like cupping.

Some CAM practitioners may be particularly enthusiastic about their methods, even suggesting you skip over conventional medical treatments advised by your doctor. If you do choose to try cupping as part of your treatment plan, you should discuss your decision with your doctor. Continue with regular doctor visits related to your condition to get the best of both worlds.

Cupping therapy is not recommended for everyone. Do not use cupping therapy if you are:

  • a child
  • elderly
  • pregnant
  • menstruating

In addition, you may not benefit from cupping therapy if you have internal organ disorders.

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Takeaway

Preparing for your cupping appointment

Cupping is a long-practiced treatment that may help ease the symptoms of both temporary and chronic health conditions. As with many alternative therapies, there haven’t been extensive studies performed without bias to fully assess its true effectiveness. If you choose to try cupping, consider using it as a complement to your current doctor visits, not a substitute.

Here are some things to consider before beginning cupping therapy:

  • What conditions does the cupping practitioner specialize in treating?
  • What method of cupping does the practitioner use?
  • Is the facility clean? Does the practitioner implement safety measurements?
  • Does the practitioner have any certifications?
  • Do you have a condition that may benefit from cupping?

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

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