The Science Behind Cupping



As acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sweep the nation, more people are seeing that there are many methodologies under the umbrella of TCM. Since the Olympians proudly displayed their marks, cupping has become a curiosity that many have questions about.  Here are five common inquiries about the method.

What is cupping?

Cupping is an ancient method of healing practiced internationally among many different cultures. There are a variety of types of cups including glass, plastic, bamboo, silicone and more. There are also a variety of methods such as dry, wet, needle, moving/sliding and stationary. Fire cupping is traditionally used in Chinese Medicine. Fire removes the oxygen from within the cup creating a vacuum and allowing it to be suctioned onto the body. Often, TCM practitioners also use plastic or silicone based cups. Instead of fire, a suction pump, or even just pressing the cups directly onto the body will create the vacuum.

How does it work?

Once applied, the suction creates a negative pressure (vacuum) on the muscle and fascia layer. At this point, the healing mechanism is threefold: 1) it helps to loosen tight and constricted muscles and bound up fascia  2) it aids in pulling up and out stagnant/trapped blood from various layers throughout the musculoskeletal system causing lack of blood and lymph flow and potential circulation issues 3) it signals the immune system to perform self-healing actions. Cupping can be stationary or moving. Stationary cups are applied to the affected area of the body and are left in place an average of 5-15 minutes. The moving method gently slides the cups around the affected area. It is up to your practitioner which method will be utilized.

What is it used for?

Cupping is often used for muscular complaints such as neck and back pain, but it can also be used for headaches, insect bites, hypertension, respiratory issues, digestive issues, skin disorders, general immune boosting and other musculoskeletal issues like shoulder, knee, hip and foot pain.

From a TCM perspective, pain in the body is often viewed as some form or combination of Qi and/or blood stagnation. This means that the free flow of our vital energy (Qi) and/or the blood flow is blocked somewhere in our meridians. Cupping as well as acupuncture are great methods to unblock stagnant, trapped energy and blood and get things moving.

Does it hurt?

In my practice, the vast majority of people love cupping, stating that it feels great and immediately relieves tension. Commonly, individuals report that in addition to feeling less tight or less pain, they feel calmer, less agitated, more relaxed and even sleep better the night of cupping. Occasionally, the local area may feel tender the next day or so but often that is with rigorous, deep cupping.

What’s with the dark circles?

While there can be debate among practitioners about whether the marks left behind from cupping are technically a bruise or not, the mechanism in which cupping affects the body is quite simple. The skin is highly vascular. When the cups are applied creating the vacuum, it:

1) creates vasodilation (blood vessels/capillaries become more open and have more blood flowing through) which leads to fresh blood and oxygen to the area

2) causes micro-injury to the tissues triggering an immunological response from the body and aiding in a faster healing time; and can also lead to capillary rupture and ecchymosis (discoloration of the skin due to blood vessels near the surface rupturing and leaking into surrounding tissue – aka the marks you see)

3) aids in the promotion of angiogenesis (the growth of new capillaries which means more blood and oxygen flow)

While the marks can look painful, they are simply the result of vascular changes occurring in the body due to cupping as a therapeutic intervention. They typically disappear within the week and likely will continue to get lighter and lighter as you continue to receive cupping.

More research is needed on cupping, its effects on the body, what it helps and the differing types; but next time you are in for an acupuncture treatment, give it a try! You may find that the marks are a temporary fashion statement worth having.

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