Now that we’re finally feeling some warmer weather and showing a little more skin (or more than showed under your giant winter parka, anyway) I’ve been fielding more questions than usual about cupping. What is it? Does it hurt? Why does it look like an octopus attacked that person?
Cupping is a centuries-old tradition that’s been used to improve respiratory health and treat pain in numerous global cultures, not just in Asia. It’s been recorded as being used in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe in addition to East Asia, and has been a time-honoured home method for grandmothers treating anything from gastric distress to whooping cough. Remember the scene from the Godfather when Robert Deniro is home and baby Fredo is crying because he’s got pneumonia? The caretakers in that scene are cupping him (probably to help move phlegm and fluids in the lungs, and to remind him never to go against the family).
Nowadays, cups (which take their name from the shapes of the glass or plastic “cups” used to apply suction to the epidermis) come in many forms, and are most commonly used to treat muscular pain. Glass cups or “fire cups” are briefly heated with a flame to remove the oxygen inside and to create a vacuum to form a suction seal against the skin. Plastic cups come equipped with a small hand pump, useful to control the level of suction. Silicone cups use the soft material and shape of the cup to create suction.
I use plastic cups in my practice because I appreciate the level of control I have over the strength of the attachment, which is better for patient safety and comfort.
Why so much suction? The action is gentle but powerful enough to separate the fascia (the membranous tissue that wraps around every muscle and organ) from the muscle layer, creating an opportunity for more circulation to flow to the muscles in question. With added circulation, red blood cells are able to supply more oxygen to damaged tissue while transporting away cellular debris from injury. This blood flow contributes to the circular marks that are sometimes left behind after a cupping session. The marks come from micro bruising when the suction is strong enough to break capillaries (the smallest members of our circulatory system).
Does it hurt? No. Sometimes with very strong suction, you may feel a little pinch or tension, depending on the part of the body being worked on. However, most patients report pleasant tension and pain relief once the cups are removed. The marks or micro-bruises are not painful and do not need extra attention after undergoing a treatment, and they don’t always appear (they have a lot to do with how tense the muscles were prior to trying cupping, the amount of suction applied, and the length of time the cups were left in place). If you do see marks after having a cupping session, cover the area for the remainder of the day (no sauna / sunbathing / swimming) and then go about your business as usual. Most marks fully disappear within a week of the session.