Cupping is a traditional medicinal procedure that’s been practiced for thousands of years. Both ancient and modern practitioners used cupping therapy to treat pain symptoms in the back, neck and head as well as other complaints. Cupping is an option at many medical practices that offer complementary health care treatments, including Northeast Spine and Sports Medicine. Find out more about this long-standing therapy practice below.
Cupping therapy involves the use of specialized cups or glass jars. These containers are placed, open-end down, on the body in critical locations. Pressure in the cup pulls the skin up, which is the active part of the cupping therapy.
The practice of cupping dates back to ancient healing practices in both the Middle East and China. Traditionalists believe the practice helps support proper flow of qi, or life force, in the body. Interestingly, modern medical practitioners know the suction involved in cupping therapy does, in fact, promote blood flow and circulation in certain areas of the body.
Traditional methods of cupping relied on heat and some basic principles of science to create suction. The cups, which were made of animal horns or ceramics, were heated in a fire and then applied to the body. As they cooled, the pressure inside changed, causing suction to occur. Alternatively, something flammable, such as alcohol, might be placed in the cup and lit before the cup is placed over the skin. As the substance burns up, the same pressure and suction situation occurs.
In modern medical practices that provide cupping, a pump is used to create suction. The “cups” may be made of various materials, including silicone. But the concept is the same.
There are two overall types of cupping. The first is known as dry cupping, and it’s the process described above. The other is known as wet cupping. It involves the same process as dry cupping but adds a step where the practitioner makes a small, shallow incision in the skin and uses the cupping to draw out some blood. This is thought to help remove toxins from the body.
Cupping is performed by a variety of practitioners. Chiropractors, acupuncturists, physical therapists, licensed massage therapists and even doctors might offer this as a treatment option.
You are struggling with joint pain, headaches, or pain due to arthritis.
You are struggling with mood disorders, like depression or generalized anxiety.
You have a wound or a bone fracture at the site where cupping would be performed.
You have deep vein thrombosis or varicose veins at the site where cupping would be performed.
Cupping may certainly feel odd, especially for first-time patients. And while the suction provides pressure, it shouldn’t be painful. Your practitioner will constantly check in with you during the cupping process to ensure you are not experiencing undue comfort.
Cupping therapy hasn’t been studied extensively by modern medicine. The few studies that have been conducted do note that cupping may have some positive outcomes for certain disorders. Cupping may also be more effective alongside complementary pain management treatments, including acupuncture, massage and medication.
A cupping therapy session can take up to an hour, but the cups aren’t applied and providing suction the entire time. Cupping therapy typically also starts and ends with massage, and it takes some time to properly apply the cups. Depending on the conditions being treated and the needs and preferences of the individual patient, cups may only be in place on the skin for a few minutes or up to around 15 minutes.
Because cupping tends to treat symptoms of a condition and not the condition itself, it likely won’t provide a permanent solution. Like medication, massage and other treatments, cupping therapy may provide temporary relief and need to be repeated on a periodic basis. Again, this depends on the individual and the conditions or symptoms are being treated.
The suction and force cupping puts on the body does break small blood vessels under the skin, which can result in bruising. These marks can last for a few weeks depending on skin tone and how fast someone heals. Cupping may also cause temporary soreness. Otherwise, the practice is generally considered safe, especially when performed by an experienced professional in a medical setting.
Less common but potential side effects of cupping include skin infections or scarring, nausea, headaches and fatigue. Working with an experienced practitioner with safe, approved cupping equipment helps reduce the risks of some of these side effects.
Cupping can be a greater risk for individuals with certain conditions. If you have a bleeding disorder, such as hemophilia, you should not undergo cupping. Some skin conditions, a history of stroke or blood clotting disorders, and epilepsy are also reasons you may not want to undergo cupping. Research is still relatively light on the impact of cupping on pregnancy, so pregnant women should always speak with their provider before undergoing the treatment.
After a cupping therapy session, practitioners may provide ointment or even cover the area that was cupped — especially if it was a wet cupping session. Other than following any directions in caring for those areas, there’s generally not a recovery period following cupping therapy. You should avoid showering immediately as hot water can increase bruising, and you should drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated.
Cupping is used to treat pain and other conditions. Some people turn to cupping as a way to treat pain without medication.
Medical science doesn’t have complete answers about why cupping works for some people, but theories include the fact that it promotes blood flow and may remove toxins from the skin and pores.
Some conditions that cupping therapy may provide relief for include: