Dr. Allison Heffron, DC, L.Ac, describes the ancient method of cupping therapy and the broad range of symptoms the different cupping techniques are used to treat.
What is Cupping Therapy?
Despite popular belief and modern demand, cupping has been around since as early as the fourth century. It was initially used as a treatment for headaches, dizziness, and abdominal pain, but then progressed into being used for respiratory diseases and musculoskeletal pain. This ancient method has recently been in the limelight ever since Michael Phelps had hickeys lain across his back to help with tight muscles, but its uses remain varied and successful.
Cupping Methods and How They Work
Cupping can be performed by using glass or plastic cups. There are a variety of cupping methods and they each have their own purposes. Traditionally it is done by lighting an alcohol-soaked cotton ball on fire, then inserting it into the cup and quickly removing it before placing the cup onto the skin to create a vacuum seal. Another method is performed by using cups with a suction pump attached to create the vacuum that way. There is stationary cupping and slide cupping, wet cupping and dry cupping, needle cupping and moxa cupping, etc.
During stationary cupping, the cups just sit in one place for a period of time, versus slide cupping which is performed by the practitioner actively moving the cups along muscles. The methods used by the practitioner are usually chosen based on the condition being treated and the preference of that practitioner.
I prefer sliding the cups up and down muscles since it is a passive way to influence the tissue in a dynamic manner. What I mean by that is that we live in a dynamic world and we are always moving, therefore our muscles should be treated dynamically. Again, this is just my own clinical preference, but neither one is right or wrong.
Wet cupping involves puncturing an area with a lancet prior to cupping it. This may seem barbaric, however, it is completely safe and not as crazy as it may sound. Why would this ever be used? Well, depending on the patients’ complaint, there may be an indication of blood being “stuck” and not flowing as smoothly as possible causing a “blockage” in the area creating pain. A good example of this is a sharp headache, or any sharp pain for that matter. The description of a sharp pain is a very good indicator that there is “dead blood” stuck in an area resulting in fresh blood being unable to flow throughout the area, which is an important part of maintaining a pain-free and healthy environment. Often times there is an area of discolored skin, a raised red mark, or some sort of skin change that indicates a site to be bled. The area will then be pricked a few times with a lancet and then a cup is placed over it to essentially suck out the stagnant blood, which is typically sticky and/or very dark—not the way healthy blood would appear. Dry cupping is simply cupping without lancing an area.
Needle and moxa cupping techniques are always performed with the cup staying in one spot. Typically, these methods are used for more systemic issues—meaning not just for muscle injury. They are performed by needling or placing moxa (short for “moxibustion,” a Chinese warming herb) over a site and then applying a cup over top. This helps to strongly draw out toxins or immerse the area with heat, depending on what is needed.
Is Cupping Therapy Safe?
The cupping treatment is relatively safe, but it may leave some bruising and discoloration of the skin indicating blood being rushed to the surface. This is actually a very good thing. Cupping is a technique used to get blood moving more freely, so when the skin appears purplish, dark, or even bright red after the treatment it is a good sign that the cupping has done its job and has essentially cleared a path for fresh blood to flow and help heal the area. These bruises or discolorations will usually dissipate after only a few days.
Brief History of Cupping Therapy
Cupping has been around long before Michael Phelps’ back was covered in hickeys at the 2016 Olympics, and even before Gwyneth Paltrow donned her cupping back bruises on the red carpet circa 2004. Dating back to the fourth century, long before the Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Michael Phelps of mainstream media, this ancient method has been used for a multitude of ailments and luckily—is still widely practiced across the world. While the cupping technique does cause bruising (as it creates a vacuum seal on the skin), it’s benefits are worth it. Do not let the post-treatment appearance of cupping deter you from getting a treatment that may prove to be very beneficial for your pain or even your common cold!