Cupping: A Bright Spot in Therapeutic Treatment

If you were watching the Olympic Games earlier this month, you probably saw Michael Phelps and a number of other athletes with round, reddish-purple marks on their body. You probably also saw an article or two explaining that the circular marks were signs of cupping – a pain relief technique practiced in ancient medicine for thousands of years but otherwise new to Western audiences.

Now that the hype from the Olympics has died down, I wanted to take some time to talk about cupping and help you understand if it may be right for you.

As its name implies, cupping involves the use of cups that connect to a pump, which removes the air from the inside of the cup and creates suction between the cup and the skin. Cups are typically applied to fleshy areas of the back, shoulders, arms, and legs. Historically, the cups were made from a wide range of materials. From ceramic to bamboo, to even hollowed out animal horns. Really any type of cup that could hold a seal was used. For today’s clinical use cups are typically made from glass, though some practitioners will use plastic or silicone. My preference is glass because it is the safest and most sanitary option. Other materials are porous and can hold on to traces of blood or dead skin cells. All cups must be cleaned and sanitized after each use with Sporox. If your practitioner is not washing and sanitizing using these methods, you are at risk of being exposed to infection and it is best to refuse the treatment.

The suction between the cup and the skin opens the pores and pulls the skin up and away from the muscle that’s underneath. You will feel a tight sensation when the cup is first applied to your skin, but this sensation should be relaxing and soothing, not painful.

The cupping process can be described as the inverse of massage – while massage applies downward pressure to the muscles, cupping gently mulls them upward. In turn, this causes the capillaries just beneath the surface of the skin to expand – which leads to the trademark circular marks we all saw on Phelps’ shoulders, back, and legs.

Expanding blood vessels might sound bad, but they actually help improve blood and qi circulation, relieve pain, and remove toxins from the body’s tissue. It also breaks up knots, scar tissue and fascia (connective tissue) under the surface of the skin that could be causing pain or inhibiting range of motion. Depending on the condition being treated, cups may be left in place for about 5 to 10 minutes. In some treatments, medicated or herbal oils may be applied to the rim of the cups so an acupuncturist can slide the cups over the skin.

A lot of the attention around cupping during the Olympics focused on whether the treatment has any benefit, or if athletes such as Phelps were experiencing the placebo effect. Part of the reason for this skepticism comes from a perceived lack of scientific research on the effectiveness of cupping in Western medicine.

However those athletes may have felt, practitioners of Eastern Medicine use cupping to treat a variety of conditions: Coughs and colds, respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, anxiety and depression, and yes, muscle pain. It’s not just a part of Eastern Medicine, either – variations of cupping were practiced by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Native Americans.

Even if you’re not an Olympian, cupping can be a safe and painless way to treat a range of conditions and can easily be incorporated into your acupuncture treatments.

Ask Your Acupuncturist

What color will my cupping marks be?

The discoloration of the cupping marks will vary depending on the treatment. The darker the discoloration, the more stagnation that was present in your body – improper blood flow, knotted muscle fibers, dead cells that hadn’t yet been removed by the immune system, and so on. If you see dark marks after your first treatment, don’t worry. With each session, the stagnation is resolved, proper circulation is reestablished, and the discoloration of the cupping marks will become lighter.