Chances are you’ve at least heard of the term “cupping” by now. Like most people, however, you aren’t entirely sure what it’s all about. While this idea may seem like a new-age, strange entity, it has actually been practiced for centuries by various cultures.

Consider this your guide into the world of therapeutic suction cups, their uses, and why on Earth anyone would want to leave those red circles all over their backs. Here’ everything you need to know about cupping.

When Did This Crazy Thing Start?

The type of muscle cupping we know today got its start in old Western medical textbooks that claimed it started in Egypt. The truth is that a version known as fire cupping had already been used throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa for hundreds of years prior to treat all sorts of ailments.

Back in the dark ages, “doctors” used animal horns instead of glass to treat everything from snake bites to boils. At the time, people thought it pulled toxins straight out of the body and into the horn.

Since then, cupping therapy cups have been upgraded to bamboo, then finally the glass bulbs you see today. You might also find silicone variants made to withstand higher levels of heat in combination therapies.

Despite the widespread popularity of this idea, most call this alternative medicine Chinese therapy suction cups. At least, that’s a popular buzzword you can find online. Why? Early Chinese doctors used these cups as a way to divert blood flow from surgical sites.

Aside from the Chinese, you can also find cupping in Arabic texts dating back an estimated 5,000 years. However, the version you will find today is a combination of Chinese and European invention combined with modern day application.

What Does It Do?

There’s a lot of debate on just how beneficial cupping can be, but the idea behind is to create a vacuum on your skin via the cups. From there, blood is drawn to the surface of the skin in specific areas that need healing.

More holistic-style doctors may use these cups as a way to transfer energy or align the chakras, whereas traditional doctors utilize them to heal muscle tissue faster, among other things. You might often find practitioners combining this method with acupuncture or acupressure. That’s aside from hot stone massages, of course.

Since alternative medicine has garnered a lot of attention in recent years, this trend has gained a lot of popularity. Even star athletes like Michael Phelps uses cupping in his recovery routine!

Different Strokes for Different Folks

As you might have guessed, there are a variety of methods that can be applied when cupping. While each achieves the same result, there are a few points to note that make them wholly different from one another.

The Dry Version

Dry cupping is rather common thanks it’s quickly applicable method and low amount of pressure, which makes it excellent for beginners who want to give this alternative medicine a try. Both vacuums and flames can be used for dry cupping. Here’s how they work.

Suction Cups

Silicon variants can be placed over the skin, often along the spine, before having the air vacuumed out. This creates the suction necessary for cupping and is easily the least amount of pressure you can experience during the process. Once you’re done, they pop right off.

Fire and Flame

Glass cups are often set on fire with an accelerant, which is either alcohol or herbs, then placed on the skin as the flame begins to go out. This creates suction inside of the glass, drawing the skin outwards.

With either suction or fire cupping, the skin underneath becomes red due to the increased blood flow to the area. Cups are normally left on for about three minutes, but some sessions can last up to twenty.

Both of these methods are better suited for softer skin tissue, as they create a tight bond without applying too much pressure. Sometimes, the cups are lubricated so they may be moved around the skin to different areas.

Wet N’ Wild

Known as Hijama in Arabic culture, wet cupping is and was popular throughout Muslim areas of the world. The Chinese also utilized this style to improve respiratory ailments from the common cold to pneumonia.

During this procedure, small incisions are made in the area where the cups will sit with a sterile scalpel.  After the cups are placed, they draw stagnant blood from the cut. This is typically done after a dry cupping session upon request.

As a form of bloodletting, wet cupping can provide immense relief to painful areas and expel excess heat from the body. It can take up to a full ten days before they are under the cups returns to normal. So, keep that in mind.

Masseuse’s Touch

Massage cupping is often done with silicone cups due to their increased flexibility over glass, which is essential since your therapist will be moving the cups around your body. The sensation combined with oil creates an enjoyable massaging effect.

During the process, your muscles are worked over with the application of negative pressure. Instead of the typical pressure, you might experience at the chiropractor (known as tissue compression), this form of pressure pulls everything upward and has been shown to provide better pain management while enhancing circulation.

Some practitioners may use massage cupping for weight loss or cellulite removal, but the agreed upon benefit is a relaxing time and pain relief. Much like any other massage, you will leave feeling relaxed and energized.

Are There Negative Effects?

Yes and no: that all depends on the professionalism of your practitioner. Unclean environments and unsafe hands might lead to bruises, burns, and skin infections. If the office you’ve walked into looks sketchy, head back out the door.

Aside from the few unethical practitioners out there, there isn’t a whole lot to worry about. You can expect to see red circles form after any cupping session due the increased blood flow, and those with highly sensitive skin may be left with a minor bruise from removing the cup.

It is also believed that extremely dark red circles are an indicator of a high level of toxins in the body, while lighter red circles show off a cleaner you. However, there is no documented proof to back this up as of today.

Cupping is an incredibly safe procedure, and wet cupping is best left to professionals who are certified to do so. So, no. There are no real side effects so long as the practitioner is ethical and professional. Also, the process is relatively painless despite the appearance of cupping circles.

Things to Consider Beforehand

If you’re feeling adventurous and want to give cupping a try, then there are a few things to take into consideration first. As mentioned above, you will want to find a licensed professional with a track record of happy clients off the bat.

You should also consider why you want to have cupping done on you. Are you looking to cure an ache, chronic pain, or condition? Are you just wanting to give this a try to see how you feel afterward? Maybe you want to detoxify your body?

Discuss your reasoning with the practitioner. This allows them to place the cups where they need to be based on your back’s meridian lines. Different sized cups might be placed in different areas, all for different lengths of time depending on the desired result.

To give you an idea of what patients often receive this type of therapy for, here’s a handy list of popular reasons:

  • Increased energy
  • Detoxification
  • Pain relief
  • Easing tense muscles
  • Encouraging relaxation

Last, but not least, there are a few reasons not to have these therapeutic cups placed on your body. Anyone prone to bleeding or those who are pregnant are not advised to pursue this alternative medicine. Neither is anyone with cancer, deep vein thrombosis, or ulcers.

Those with muscle spasms or bone fractures can find the process incredibly painful. At the same time, patients whose pulse cannot be found easily will most likely be turned away by a practitioner.

Athletes and Alternative Medicine

While cupping is becoming ever more popular, it is perhaps mostly used by athletes who compete in swimming, gymnastics, and track and field. The increased blood flow caused by the procedure is an excellent remedy for healing muscles after intense meets and workouts.

Often, these athletes will use cupping in conjunction with cold compression, steaming saunas, or manual muscle therapy. Several athletes report that pain management during training and muscle relaxation is aided by this alternative. So, if you play a sport, you might want to consider giving it a try.

While many have turned into advocates for the benefits of cupping, it is important to remember that this is still a pseudoscience. The benefits have not been scientifically proven. You’ll have to decide for yourself if this is something you want to try, and whether or not cupping healing is real.  

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