Cupping: What is it?
Cupping is an ancient medicinal practice that dates as early as 3000 B.C., and has made a recent resurgence in the alternative health industry. Cupping was traditionally practiced by Middle Eastern, Greek, and Chinese cultures for thousands of years before becoming popular in Europe and in North America.
Historically, cupping was used to cleanse the body of internal impurities, as well as for religious healing purposes.1 Modern cupping therapies involve a variation of techniques that aim to treat symptoms including back pain, skin diseases, and inflammation. Cupping has gained universal momentum due to public praise by sports stars and celebrities who often show off their unique bruises from cupping therapy.
So, what does cupping therapy do, and is cupping safe? Many health care professionals and holistic practitioners have polarizing opinions. Traditional cupping therapies combined with modern tools and techniques propose a variety of health benefits, along with associated risks, that attracts diverse patients across the globe.
How Does Cupping Therapy Work?
Cupping therapy involves placing specifically tailored cups on your skin to create suction. Traditional cups are made of glass, bamboo, or earthenware. Silicone cupping is also increasingly popular. Different cupping therapies include dry and wet methods, both which involve a therapist either heating or cooling the air surrounding the cup. The number of cups on the body varies from three to seven, which are placed upside down on the skin to create vacuum like suction.
The cups are left on the skin up to fifteen minutes, and researchers believe the placement of the cups on selected acupoints produces therapeutic results. The cup suction increases blood flow to effectively massage the skin, treat pain symptoms and reduce inflammation. The vacuum sensation causes blood vessels to expand, resulting in reddened skin and circular bruises at the surface.2
Types of Chinese Cupping: Fire & Wet
Dry and wet cupping are the two most recognized forms of cupping therapy. Fire cupping, also known as dry cupping, is popular in Asian countries including China, Japan, and Korea. Wet cupping is predominantly used in the Middle East, and is also popular in China in combination with acupuncture. Both fire and wet cupping techniques are traditionally used to treat pain, however, these methods also offer unique benefits to patients.3
Fire cupping therapy involves a trained practitioner placing a series of cups on the patient’s back, and heating the cups with a cupping torch or flammable cotton balls. The hot cups are held in place on the patient’s back for five to fifteen minutes, creating an intense suctioning sensation where the skin is pulled into the cup.
Moving cupping is another dry cupping technique, where massage oil is applied to the back, and the cups are heated and slid across the back to remove tension. Traditional hot cupping tools were created with animal horns, clay pots, or bamboo. Today, traditional fire cupping treatments are modernized by using a gradient sized glass cupping set to target certain areas and ailments.
Wet cupping therapy, or medicinal bleeding, involves a skin puncturing technique. A cup is left in place for up to five minutes, and is removed as the practitioner uses a scalpel to lightly puncture the skin. A second cup suction occurs to draw small quantities of blood from the skin, followed by an ointment and bandage to protect the skin.
Traditionally, honey is locally applied to fix the cups and to enhance healing of the skin. Wet cupping is traditionally believed to eliminate scar tissues, and cleanse the body through the organs.1
Benefits of Cupping
What does cupping do for the body? Historically, the health benefits of cupping therapy were believed to help restore the inner Yin-Yang balance by ejecting pathogenic factors, promoting blood circulation, alleviating pain, and essentially strengthening the body.4
Modern research describes different benefits for both dry and wet cupping. Notable Chinese fire cupping benefits include successful treatment of headaches, malnutrition, asthmatic bronchitis, chronic neck pain, chest pain, and osteoarthritis.3,5,6 Wet cupping therapy is more commonly used to treat skin conditions, lower back pain, cholesterol, and cardiovascular diseases.7,8,9,10
Cupping Benefits for Pain
Recent trials revealed significantly decreased symptoms of lower back pain among patients using wet cupping for pain therapy.7 Additional cupping therapy reviews and cupping therapy research confirm that this method is effective in treating non-specific lower back pain, and can be used as complimentary therapy to help decrease back pain.11
Benefits of cupping therapy for fibromyalgia symptoms are also evident, however, further medical studies are needed to determine the long-term effectiveness of cupping for treating fibromyalgia.12 Current studies suggests that in addition to cupping therapy back pain treatments, cupping appears to be effective in relieving chronic neck pain.5
As medical understanding and interest in cupping therapy improves, research will determine further evidence for both dry and wet cupping therapy for lower back pain, as well as treating musculoskeletal pain, neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and pinched nerves.13
Cupping Therapy Benefits for Skin Conditions
Recent research has confirmed effective results for dry cupping therapy on face treatments, including chronic hives and acne vulgaris.8 Dry cupping acne treatment techniques are known to reduce pathogens on the skin and effectively target acne.8,16
Dry cupping therapy for cellulite reviews reveal patients seeing reduced cellulite with ongoing treatment.15 Cupping therapy for stretch marks is also common, along with dry cupping therapy varicose veins treatments. Fire cupping shows promising evidence for stimulating blood flow and reducing skin scarring, and ongoing research will confirm the effectiveness of cupping therapy for treating other skin conditions as cupping popularity increases.23
Cupping Therapy for Migraines and Headaches
The purpose of cupping for treating migraines, common headaches, and tension is promising. Clinical studies reveal headache severity decreased by 66% following wet cupping therapy.17 Traditionally, Chinese cupping practices were used for headaches and tension, and further research will determine its effectiveness as an alternative and complimentary migraine treatment for patients suffering from chronic pain.18
Cupping Therapy Cardiovascular Benefits
Wet cupping treatments show potential for healing cardiovascular related health symptoms, such as reducing harmful LDL cholesterol.10 Wet cupping may also prevent clogged arteries, and can improve heart rate cardiac rhythm.19
Individuals with blood iron related symptoms, including anemia and thalassemia, may benefit from wet puncture cupping. Recent studies show positive results for patients using cupping to treat blood iron levels and improve blood circulation.20
Caption: While cupping therapy is becoming increasingly popular, it is not recommended to practice at home. It’s rising popularity also makes practitioners easy to find, and treatments affordable.
Cupping Massage Bruising and Side Effects
Many people who are interested in cupping have one major question in common: does cupping hurt? Most users describe the feeling as being strange, feeling like a hard pinch with lots of pressure around the area under the cup. Some describe it as painful, others find it only mildly uncomfortable, so this will depend on your own pain threshold. Cupping therapy has been employed across the world for thousands of years, and while generally safe, it is important to be aware of cupping therapy dangers.
Massage cupping, also known as Ventosa massage, can lead to red marks, bruising, and swelling as blood is drawn to the skin’s surface.3 Due to the concentrated blood flow in cupping regions, slight sweating is a common side effect.3 How long do cupping bruises last? Most studies claim both dry and wet cupping massage treatments lead to skin bruising that lasts up to two weeks.
Because traditional wet cupping practices employ bloodletting procedures, skin bacterial infections can result.13,21 Serious fire cupping side effects include Panniculitis, or abdomen inflammation.22 Other harmful cupping therapy side effects such as keloid scarring, burning, and capillary rupture are also possible.3,21
To prevent the risk of side effects, patients should seek cupping treatments from trained professionals. Cupping is considered a generally safe and effective alternative treatment, however medical advice is recommended for geriatric, pregnant, and menstruating patients.3
Where to get Cupping Done -Can You Do Cupping Therapy at Home?
People are increasingly seeking alternative health treatments, resulting in the increasing popularity of cupping therapy. There has been a surge of media attention focused on cupping therapy; celebrities around the world are praising their results from ongoing cupping treatments, as well as Olympic athletes. As emerging research shows promising results to support cupping, it is becoming a recognized complementary pain treatment.
Chinese cupping therapy should always be carried out by licensed professionals, and practicing cupping therapy at home is not recommended. Lack of a sterilized environment and technique is dangerous and likely ineffective without professional training. The good news is, thanks to the expanding interest and medical studies supporting the benefits of cupping therapy, both dry and wet cupping therapies are more readily accessible.
The cost of cupping therapy can vary from $40-$80 per session, typically lasting about a half hour. Modern cupping facilities utilize modern cupping techniques that include glass cups, dry suction cupping, and wet cupping using controlled medicinal bleeding. Before seeking cupping therapy for yourself, you should speak to your doctor to help decide the right kind of cupping therapy for your needs.
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- Zhang, C. Q., Liang, T. J., & Zhang, W. (2006). Effects of drug cupping therapy on immune function in chronic asthmatic bronchitis patients during protracted period. Zhongguo Zhong xi yi jie he za zhi Zhongguo Zhongxiyi jiehe zazhi= Chinese journal of integrated traditional and Western medicine, 26(11), 984-987. Retrieved October 20, 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17186726.
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- Farhadi, K., Schwebel, D. C., Saeb, M., Choubsaz, M., Mohammadi, R., & Ahmadi, A. (2009). The effectiveness of wet-cupping for nonspecific low back pain in Iran: a randomized controlled trial. Complementary therapies in medicine, 17(1), 9-15. DOI:10.1016/j.ctim.2008.05.003.
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