“Where there’s stagnation, there’s pain. Remove the stagnation and you remove the pain.” ~ancient Chinese proverb
Lately it seems like everyone’s doing cupping. From Gwenyth Paltrow to Justin Bieber to Michael Phleps this ancient treatment has stormed the modern scene. It’s been a part of my Asian Medicine practice for over 15 years, and I’ve witnessed its effectiveness first hand.
What is it?
Cupping is the application of glass or plastic cups onto the skin. A pump or heat is used to create a vacuum, and the skin and underlying tissue is drawn up into the cup. Cups are typically left in place for 5-15 minutes, and they can leave a tell-tale mark which looks like you’ve had a run-in with a giant octopus.
Believe it or not, the first cups were made not from glass but from animal horns. The earliest written records of cupping in China date back to the Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE) where the Bo Shu describes use of suction through animal horns to lance boils and other skin conditions. In Egypt, the Ebers Papyrus which dates back to approximately 1500 BCE also describes the technique. Tang Dynasty texts (681-907 CE) describe the use of bamboo and clay cups which were first soaked in herbal solutions and used over the chest to relieve respiratory issues, likely from pulmonary tuberculosis. Cupping was also used in Greek medicine, by practitioners such as Hippocrates and Galen. The glass and plastic cups used today were an invention of the 20th century. In fact, cupping was a widely practiced in the US until the early 20th century.
What’s it good for?
Cupping is most commonly used to relieve pain and tension in sore muscles. The vacuum created by the cup pulls stale blood and lymph out of the deeper tissues and draws it towards the surface. This action stimulates local circulation, making waste and nutrient exchange more efficient in the area of the cups. In Asian Medicine, we refer to this action as relieving stasis and warming the channels. As connective tissue is drawn into the cup as well as skin, the vacuum separates the tissue layers, allowing areas of tension between the connective tissue, skin, and muscles to be released. The result is quicker healing, looser muscles and connective tissue, and those familiar hicky-like circular marks.
Cupping can also be used to loosen the chest in cases of asthma, bronchitis, or pneumonia. Cupping over the abdomen can stimulate intestine contractions called peristalsis, which can help move things along during periods of constipation or dysentery. Cupping is used in facial acupuncture to draw fluid out of puffy tissue, smooth out the connective tissue tension leading to wrinkles, and improving blood flow to the skin. It can also be used to relieve the pain and pressure in sinuses during allergy season or a cold.
Is there any proof?
Since 1992 over 100 randomly controlled studies have been conducted relating to cupping effectiveness. However, most of these studies have been poorly controlled and have had very small sample sizes. The results are promising for cupping as a modality for relief of pain from shingles and herniated discs, as well as facial paralysis, cough, and difficulty breathing due to congestion in the lungs. No adverse effects were reported in any of the studies reviewed in the meta-analysis performed by Huijuan Cao et al in 2012, making cupping worth a try for any of these conditions.
Who shouldn’t try cupping?
As with any modality, a treatment which is powerful enough to provide relief can also cause problems for some. People with very thin, delicate skin such as seniors should use caution with cupping – especially on the face or hands where skin is more likely to tear. People with bleeding disorders should avoid cupping, and people using blood thinners should talk to a qualified practitioner before trying the procedure. Because of the stimulating nature of cupping, it should not be used on the abdomen or lower back during pregnancy.
How do I try it?
Cupping isn’t a licensed modality, meaning that anyone can hang a shingle and say they do it. The most qualified professionals have completed supervised training on cupping techniques, and include all acupuncturists and some massage therapists. To find a someone in your area qualified to perform cupping, check out NCCAOM.