Cupping has been around for thousands of years and is popular in many traditional cultures. I’ve have had patients from Asian, Eastern European as well as South American countries tell me that cupping was used in their households as a form of traditional medicine. I use cupping on many of my patients because it feels amazing for tight upper back and neck muscles which pretty much everyone has! Since some of the world’s top athletes are showing the cups marks like badges of honor, I have been asked many questions so I figured I’d address some of them.
What is cupping? Cupping is a technique that uses suction either from fire or from a pump to relieve muscle pain and tension. It is also used commonly to treat things like coughs and asthma.
Does it hurt? Not usually. There are many different types of cupping and it is done for many different reasons. “Stationary cupping” is done with the cups placed on specific areas (usually muscular trigger points and left on for 5 to 15 minutes). This can feel strange when they first go on, I always tell people it’s like when you were a kid and you suctioned a cup onto your face, didn’t really hurt but felt different. The marks that are left, although they look like bruises, do not hurt like a bruise. “Running cupping” is done with the cups sliding along the skin and you will feel a pulling sensation which feels similar to a deep tissue massage and you are not left with circular marks. There is also a technique called “wet cupping” which is done to draw out a few drops of blood and this is not something I do in practice.
How does it work? The suction draws fresh blood into the muscles and as the blood flow increases to blood vessels, the tissue gets more nutrients and oxygen. This helps with stiffness, scar tissue and muscle cramps. The better the blood flow the more efficiently the muscles can function and heal.
How is it done? There are two forms of cupping commonly used. “Fire cupping” involves the heating of a glass cup which creates a vacuum which pulls the skin. The other method involves a plastic cup with a pump that pulls the air out from the top of the cup. I will often use the method with the pump because I can control the amount of suction in the cup.
How long do the marks last? They usually last a few days to a week. Generally speaking the first time you have cupping the marks will last longer because you have stagnation built up, but the looser you become the less marks you will have.
Why do the cups leave different colors? In Chinese Medicine we view a well functioning body as one that has relaxed muscles and good blood flow. When muscles become tight, the blood flow is reduced and things gets stuck. By pulling up the muscle you are causing it to relax and allow new blood to flood in with fresh oxygen and nutrients. The darker the mark the more stagnation there was in the area (it can also be from an area that was iced which constricts blood flow). Red marks tend to appear more when there is inflammation or infection. Light pink that disappears quickly means everything is working well, this is what we all strive for! Generally the more often you have cupping done, the lighter the marks are. Most of my patients who receive cupping regularly do not have very prominent markings.
Who can benefit from cupping? Everyone (mostly)! You do not need to be a professional athlete to use cupping. Most Americans for a variety of reasons have very tight shoulder and upper backs and cupping (especially when coupled with acupuncture) is a great way to release these muscles. In addition to tight muscles, cupping is traditionally used for people with asthma, colds and coughs and allergies. You shouldn’t use cupping on the low back if you are pregnant and they should be used with caution when on blood thinners. Cups shouldn’t use on open skin or directly over the spine itself.