Have you noticed more and more celebrities showing up to events with little round marks on their backs? These come from cupping therapy. But what is it?
Cupping is a type of alternative therapy that involves placing cups on the skin to create suction. This suction is thought to improve the flow of energy in the body and facilitate healing.
One of the oldest medical texts to mention cupping therapy is Eber’s papyrus (1550 B.C.) from Ancient Egypt, though cupping is a part of many ancient healing systems, including Chinese, Unani, traditional Korean, and Tibetan.
Greek physician Hippocrates, often referred to as the “father” of medicine, even compiled descriptions of cupping techniques.
These days, cupping therapy is usually found as a treatment offered by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Proponents believe the suction helps facilitate the flow of “qi” in the body. Qi is a Chinese word meaning life force.
Many believe that cupping helps 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 increases blood circulation to the area where the cups are placed. This may relieve muscle tension, which can improve overall blood flow and promote cell repair. It may 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 symptoms and conditions.
There is a growing body of research digging into how and why cupping may work.
A 2018 review of studies noted that cupping therapy has reported benefits for a variety of conditions that can be categorized as either localized or systematic diseases.
Cupping is thought to alleviate symptoms by promoting peripheral (close to the skin) blood circulation and improving immunity.
According to the 2018 review, the effects of cupping therapy include:
- promoting the skin’s blood flow
- changing the skin’s biomechanical properties
- increasing pain thresholds
- improving local anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism
- reducing inflammation
- boosting cellular immunity
According to a 2017 study, the mechanical effect of cupping increases local blood flow and stretches underlying tissue.
Activation of Heme oxygenase-1, a gene that plays a critical role in the prevention of vascular inflammation, could account for many of cupping therapy’s claimed local and systemic health benefits.
A 2019 study noted that no single theory exists to explain the whole effects of cupping, but some theories include:
- altering pain signal processing
- using counter-irritation, or pain to reduce pain
- stimulating increased blood circulation through the release of nitric oxide
- stimulating the immune system with artificial local inflammation
- increasing the level of immune products, such as interferon and tumor necrotizing factor
- increasing the flow of lymph in the lymphatic system
- decreasing uric acid and both types of cholesterol
- changing the molecular structure and function of hemoglobin (Hb)
Despite multiple theories, more quality research is needed to confirm the effects of cupping as well as the mechanisms by which they may or may not support healing.
According to the research mentioned above, cupping may remove toxins by stimulating the immune response, both locally and systemically.
It may also eliminate uric acid, a natural waste product from the digestion of certain foods. Uric acid buildup can lead to high levels of acidity in the blood and urine.
Cupping may also have a positive effect on the lymphatic system, which is partially responsible for eliminating your body’s waste.
When the flow of lymph is interrupted, it can cause fluid buildup and prevent the body from properly eliminating toxins. Lymphatic drainage massage is one solution to this issue. Similarly, cupping may help increase the flow of lymph and prevent fluid buildup.
The evidence for cupping’s ability to remove toxins is promising, but more research is needed to confirm it.
Cupping was likely first performed using animal horns. Later, cups were made from bamboo and then ceramic.
Suction was primarily created through the use of heat. 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 bell-shaped glass cups. They may also be made of plastic or silicone.
There are four main categories of cupping performed today:
- Dry cupping: a suction-only method
- Wet/bleeding cupping: may involve both suction and controlled medicinal bleeding
- Running cupping: involves moving suctioned cups around the body after applying oil to massage the desired area
- Flash cupping: involves quick, repeated suction and release of cups on an area of the body
Cupping may also involve the use of:
- acupuncture needles
- moxibustion, or the burning of mugwort leaves
- laser therapy
- electrical stimulation
Subsets of cupping include:
- facial cupping
- sports cupping
- orthopedic cupping
- aquatic cupping
Your practitioner, your medical needs, and your preferences will help determine which method is used.
Cupping is sometimes performed with acupuncture treatments. For best results, you may also want to fast or eat only light meals 2 to 3 hours before your cupping session.
During a cupping treatment, you can expect the following:
- Your practitioner will ask you what symptoms you’ve been experiencing, likely taking a detailed health history if this is your first time visiting them.
- The practitioner will place cups on your skin.
- You’ll feel a sucking sensation and pressure as the cups are suctioned.
- The practitioner may use heat or suction alone to place the cups.
- Depending on the type of cupping, the practitioner may leave you to rest for a few minutes before they return to remove the cups.
- Your skin may turn red and show light bruising after your session.
Be sure to confirm with your practitioner which type of cupping they’re going to use before you start treatment. This may involve dry, wet/bleeding, running, facial cupping, and more.
Where will my practitioner place the cups?
Cups are most often applied to the:
Generally, the back is the most common area for cups to be used. If you’re receiving facial or cosmetic cupping, cups will be placed on your face.
How does the suction part work?
The cup is often heated with fire using alcohol, herbs, or paper that’s placed directly into the cup. The fire source is removed, and the heated cup is placed with the open side directly onto your skin.
When the hot cup is placed onto your skin, the air inside the cup cools and creates a vacuum that draws the skin and muscle up into the cup. Your skin may turn red as the blood vessels respond to the change in pressure.
Some modern cupping practitioners have shifted to using rubber pumps to create suction versus more traditional heat methods.
How long will my session last?
With dry cupping, the cup is kept in place for a set time, usually between 5 and 10 minutes.
With wet/bleeding cupping, the practitioner makes a small incision to draw blood before intentionally pulling stagnant blood out of the incision with the suction of the cup.
Running cupping usually involves the application of oil before the use of suction. Then the cups are slowly moved around the area, creating a massage-like effect. Depending on the kind of service you’re receiving, your session could last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more.
When it comes to flash cupping, the cups are quickly suctioned and then released, usually in the same generalized area of the body. This is usually a 5 to 10 minute process as well.
How long will it take for cupping marks to disappear?
Any discoloration or marks from cupping usually go away within 7 days of the session.
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.
Cupping therapy may help with the following conditions, among others:
- lower back pain
- neck and shoulder pain
- headache and migraine
- knee pain
- facial paralysis
- cough and dyspnea
- lumbar disc herniation
- cervical spondylosis
- brachialgia, the pain produced by a trapped nerve in the neck
- carpal tunnel syndrome
- diabetes mellitus
- rheumatoid arthritis
More studies are needed to assess the true effectiveness of cupping for these conditions.
There aren’t many side effects associated with cupping. The side effects you may experience typically occur during your treatment or immediately after, such as:
- circular marks where the cups have been
You may feel lightheaded or dizzy during your treatment. Rarely, you may also experience sweating or nausea.
After treatment, the skin around the rim of the cup may become irritated and marked in a circular pattern. You may also have pain at incision sites after your session.
Other risks include:
- scarring of the skin
- hematoma (bruising)
If you experience any of these issues, consult your practitioner. They may offer remedies or steps you can take before your session in order to avoid any discomfort.
Always research practitioners thoroughly to protect yourself. You can also check whether your practitioner is accredited with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).
Infection is always a risk after undergoing cupping therapy, especially wet/bleeding cupping. The risk is small and usually avoided if your practitioner follows the right methods for cleaning your skin and controlling infection before and after your session.
Cupping therapy isn’t recommended for everyone.
Don’t use cupping if you use blood-thinning medication. Also avoid cupping if you have:
- a sunburn
- a wound
- a skin ulcer
- experienced recent trauma
- an internal organ disorder
- thinning skin
Cupping shouldn’t be done on:
- skin inflammation or lesions
- body orifices
- lymph nodes
- varicose veins
Most medical professionals don’t have training or a background in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Still, it’s a good idea to let your doctor know if you choose to add cupping to your treatment plan.
Continue with regular doctor visits related to your condition to get the best of both worlds. Cupping shouldn’t replace medical care, but can complement it.
Cupping is a long-practiced treatment that may help ease the symptoms of both temporary and chronic health conditions.
If you choose to try cupping, use 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?
- Which 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, let your doctor know that you’re planning to incorporate it into your treatment plan.
Cupping is an ancient technique involving suctioning the skin with glass, plastic, or silicone cups. It may help boost immune function, increase blood flow, and reduce pain.
More and more research is emerging to suggest that cupping may be an effective complementary treatment for a variety of symptoms and conditions. Still, more high quality research is needed to confirm what cupping can do.