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What is Cupping Therapy?

By Rob Benhuri - Dec 22, 2019 10:00:00 AM

woman gets cupping therapy

Cupping Therapy

Cupping therapy is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Alongside acupuncture and herbal medicine, it can help to relieve a variety of different symptoms.

Here’s all you need to know about cupping therapy, when to use it, and how it could benefit you.

What Is Cupping Therapy?

In cupping therapy, small cups are stuck onto the skin using a vacuum. Traditionally, this vacuum would be created by lighting a flame inside the cups to burn off the oxygen. However, many modern cups use a hand pump to suck out the air.

The very first cups were probably made out of wood or bamboo. Nowadays, they tend to be made from thick, flameproof glass or plastic if using a pump.

Whatever material the cups are made from, though, cupping therapy works in a similar way. Let’s take a closer look.

How Does Cupping Therapy Work?

When the cups used in cupping therapy are stuck onto the body, the vacuum inside them draws the skin away from the underlying muscle. This creates what looks like a little bubble of flesh inside the cups. It also holds the cups in place for the duration of the treatment.

The suction of the cups causes the tiny blood vessels under the skin to break. This leads to a red or purple mark, very similar to a bruise. However, unlike bruises, the marks left by cupping do not feel painful or tender. These marks may last anywhere between a couple of hours and several days, depending on the patient and cupping technique.

One of the main purposes of cupping therapy is to improve circulation in the local area. This may help with symptoms such as pain and stiffness, and help to speed up recovery from injuries.

One of the largest groups of people who use cupping therapy are professional athletes. It is not uncommon to see cupping marks on competitors at the Olympic Games and similar events.

However, the traditional benefits of cupping extend way beyond the treatment of pain.

Cupping Therapy Benefits

One of the main reasons that people use cupping therapy is to relax tight, tense muscles and thus relieve aches and pains.

However, many TCM practitioners believe that cupping can also be used to boost immunity and fight off infections. Traditionally, cupping therapy is applied to a patient’s upper back at the first signs of a cold. The idea of this is to literally draw out any invading pathogens from the body before they have a chance to take hold.

Although this may seem far-fetched, there is some evidence that cupping therapy influences the immune system by regulating the release of certain proteins and immune cells. It probably stimulates the immune response by causing microscopic injuries to the blood vessels under the skin.

Another reason why people use cupping therapy is as a kind of detox treatment. This is especially popular in Islamic traditions, where the treatment is known as hijama. Again, there is some scientific evidence to back this up. The excretion of old red blood cells and decreases in uric acid and cholesterol levels are both possible mechanisms for how this works.

Types of Cupping Therapy

There are two primary types of cupping therapy, wet and dry. In wet cupping, the skin is pierced with a small needle before applying the cups. This allows a small amount of blood to be drawn out and is especially popular with people using cupping as a detox treatment.

Dry cupping does not involve bloodletting, but can still be useful for conditions such as stiffness and pain. Furthermore, a small amount of oil can be applied to the skin before putting the cups in place. The cups can then slide around the area to provide a unique kind of massage which most patients find incredibly soothing. 

In terms of the difference between traditional glass cups and more modern plastic ones, it is very much a matter of opinion. Some practitioners prefer glass cups as they believe that the warmth provided by the flame adds an extra dimension to their treatments. Others prefer to use plastic cups as they allow more control over how firmly they apply them.

Whatever technique your acupuncturist uses, if they offer you cupping therapy, be sure to give it a try. It is a truly one-of-a-kind treatment, and something everyone should experience at least once.

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