Cupping Therapy: Alternative Medicine for Pain, Immunity & Digestion
Relatively unknown to most people living in the West until recently, cupping therapy is an alternative therapeutic method that has been popular in China since around 1000 B.C. Some records show that variations of cupping practices might actually be much older — possibly dating as far back as 3000 B.C. (1)
And for good reason. Cupping therapy has a host of health benefits that can often outweigh modern medicine techniques.
One of the biggest advantages to trying alternative practices like cupping therapy, acupuncture or massage therapy is that these methods don’t pose the risk for unwanted side effects like pharmacological drugs or surgery do.
In fact, there’s really no downside to trying alternative practices like cupping, since studies show they can help boost immune function and speed up healing time without the use of any medications or even herbs. And these are just some of the benefits of cupping therapy.
5 Benefits of Cupping Therapy
Most of the validity of cupping as an alternative medical practice comes from its long history of use over the past 3,000 years. Cupping techniques have been used extensively to treat a range of disorders and symptoms, sometimes on their own, or other times in conjunction with other alternative practices. It’s common for cupping therapy to be used along with massage therapy, essential oils, acupuncture or even as an adjunct to “Western medicine” treatments.
What we do know from the limited scientific studies that have been done is that cupping works by expanding the capillaries and increasing the amount of fluid entering and leaving tissues. Besides this, cupping therapy seems to provoke a relaxation response in some people, which means it’s useful for lowering stress and its negative effects.
While there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence that cupping can be effective and safe, to date very few clinical studies using humans have been conducted, making it hard to “prove” many of the time-honored benefits of cupping therapy. That being said, it’s worked for millions of people over many years, so here are five ways that cupping might be able to help you:
1. Helps Reduce Pain
One of the most common reasons people turn to alternative treatment methods is because they’re looking for a safe way to naturally reduce joint pain and muscle pain. After reviewing dozens of randomized clinical trials testing cupping therapy in patients with pain of any origin, a report published in Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine found that cupping significantly reduced pain in people with low back issues compared to usual care treatments, showed positive effects in treating cancer pain compared with anticancer drugs and analgesics, and helped soothe pain associated with respiratory issues. (2)
Cupping is thought to release tissues deep inside the body, relax tense muscles and ease stiffness associated with chronic back and neck pains, migraines, rheumatism, and fatigue. Some athletes have been known to use cupping therapy to naturally improve performance and reduce stiffness, muscle cramps, joint pains and scar tissue caused by injuries.
Cupping targets soft tissue by applying local pressure to pain points and areas of swelling. As blood flow increases within vessels and capillaries, tissues receive much-needed nutrients and oxygen. Cupping practitioners use pressure, heat, suctioning and needles above or below the site of injury, allowing for energy to travel along the “channels” (meridians) that pass through the injury.
For help lowering pain, cups are commonly placed over the following areas: over the fleshy part of the shoulder blades, over the groin/loins, by the neck (for soothing tension headaches, toothaches or migraines) or around the lower back.
2. Promotes Relaxation
It might seem counteractive, but cupping often helps alleviate physical complaints and allows people to enter a more relaxed state since it sedates the central nervous system. This is similar to acupuncture, which you might assume hurts and is uncomfortable but actually seems to help lower most patients’ stress responses and therefore offers protection against anxiety and depression.
How can cupping be relaxing? Just the act of laying still and being “taken care of” during cupping therapy sessions might have a positive effect on someone’s psychological well-being, which could be one reason why it’s used to lower mental illnesses. Once the cups are placed down and suctioned, they might need to remain still for up to 20 minutes, which forces stillness and silence on patients who might otherwise lead very hectic lives. According to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, another reason cupping is soothing is because the cups help lift pressure in tense muscles, which offers a relieving sensation just like receiving a deep tissue massage. (3)
3. Boosts Skin Health
Cupping is used to reduce herpes, cellulite, acne and skin inflammation. While studies haven’t shown it can necessarily help with weight loss, the fact that it tones and firms skin by improving blood flow and expanding capillaries makes it popular among celebrities and people in the spotlight who want to appear to have toned skin. As part of a skin-clearing or cellulite treatment, oil is commonly first applied to the skin before the cups are suctioned and moved around, bringing heat to the area along with various skin-healing ingredients depending on the type of oil used.
Because cupping improves blood flow and might help lower inflammation, some studies have found it to be equally or even more effective at treating acne compared to antibiotics. A meta-analysis of six studies showed that for improving acne, the cure rate of wet cupping was better than the cure rate following use of tanshinone, tetracycline and ketoconazole prescriptions. (4)
4. Helps Treat Respiratory Issues and Colds
Commonly used to help nourish the lungs and clear away phlegm or congestion, cupping therapy can be useful for speeding up healing time from respiratory illnesses like the flu or common colds. Cupping helps improve immune function by moving blood and lymphatic fluid throughout the body, which is why it’s been associated with reductions in lung diseases (especially chronic coughs), allergies, infections and asthma.
5. Improves Digestion
Acupuncture and cupping are both popular ways to improve digestion and reduce symptoms from disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This might primarily be because they can lower a patient’s stress response, which is highly tied to healthy digestive functioning. (6)
Throughout history, cupping therapy has been found to be beneficial for people with frequent stomach pains, diarrhea, acute gastritis, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal diseases and water retention. For digestive disturbances, cupping is commonly performed in the following areas: around the navel, over the bladder, around the kidneys or over the stomach.
What Is Cupping Therapy?
In China, cupping therapy is considered a special healing skill, and it’s often passed down from one generation to the next. Ancient texts state that cupping was originally used by Taoist medical herbalists and was a popular way to treat ill royals and elitists.
Cupping healers throughout the years have successfully treated a variety of symptoms and diseases that couldn’t be cured by conventional methods, including pulmonary tuberculosis, colds, back pains, muscle spasms and pinched nerves. Traditionally cupping has also been used in patients with blood disorders (like anemia), rheumatic diseases like arthritis, fertility problems and mental illnesses.
While cupping therapies using heat have the longest history in Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea, a similar practice called “wet cupping” has also been used in the Middle East for centuries. Recently, cupping has become more popular in the U.S. and other Western nations too, as some doctors have started implementing cupping and acupuncture into their patients’ treatment plans for naturally alleviating symptoms of pain, congestion and chronic infections without the need for drugs. Today, you can find cupping therapy offered in many Traditional Chinese Medicine centers, some massage therapy locations, as well as certain holistic health centers.
Cupping therapy supporters believe that the practice helps remove harmful substances and toxins from the body, which in turn improves immunity.
Wondering if cupping really works? A 2012 report published in the Journal PLoS ONE reviewed 135 studies on cupping therapies published between 1992 and 2010. Researchers concluded that cupping is more than just a placebo effect — it has benefits similar to acupuncture or herbal treatments for treating various digestive, skin, hormonal and inflammatory diseases. (7)
- Respiratory infections
- Blood disorders, such as anemia and hemophilia
- Joint pain caused by arthritis and fibromyalgia
- Migraine and tension headaches
- Muscle aches and stiffness
- Fertility and gynecological disorders
- Skin problems such as herpes, eczema and acne
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Mental disorders, anxiety and depression
- Food allergies and asthma
- Varicose veins and cellulite
Cupping Therapy vs. Acupuncture: How Are They Similar and Different?
Cupping and acupuncture are similar because they both promote optimal “Qi” by drawing energy and blood flow to areas of the body that are experiencing inflammation, prone to low lymphatic circulation or experiencing poor blood flow. Sometimes both practices are done together by placing an acupuncture needle into the patient’s skin and then covering the needle with a cup.
In terms of their history and benefits, according to Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) cupping and acupuncture both help dispel stagnation, which can lead to disease. Cupping and acupuncture follow the body’s lines of “meridians” along the back, promoting relaxation and breaking up tension while boosting energy flow (known as Qi, the “life force”). In other words, they’re useful for blood and lymph flow, which is how they might help reduce swelling and treat various infections or diseases.
Together, these methods resolve disturbed functions of Zang-fu, a collective term in TCM for internal organs, including the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys, along with the gallbladder, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and bladder. (9)
Both practices are prescribed by TCM healers for treating the common cold or flu, fighting chronic stress, and promoting healing following pneumonia, bronchitis and musculoskeletal injuries. They do this by helping accumulated toxins to be released, blockages to be cleared, and veins and arteries to open up.
The theory behind using acupuncture and cupping simultaneously is that together they target tissue or muscles that have tightened up in response to an injury that has caused fibers to stick together and white blood cells to become stuck. Acupuncture uses tiny needles to increase the flow of blood to the affected area, but in people with injuries, performing cupping along with acupuncture might be more beneficial for easing swelling. That’s because increased blood flow alone won’t solve a painful tissue or muscular problem; the area also needs to be drained for the body’s healing process to begin and for extra fluids, white blood cells and heat to be released. (10)
How Cupping Therapy Works
According to Jennifer Dubowsky, a licensed acupuncturist and cupping practitioner, the purpose of cupping is “to enhance circulation, help relieve pain, remove heat and pull out the toxins that linger in your body’s tissues.” (11)
Cupping involves the use of cups applied to a patient’s back in a series of positions in order to produce suction. The vacuum effect targets areas of skin and deep tissue within the back, which is beneficial for dulling pain, breaking up deep scar tissue, and relaxing tender muscles or connective tissue. In this way, cupping is almost like the opposite of getting a massage since instead of applying pressure to swollen areas, it draws pressure out. For this reason cupping is often done in patients who experience chronic lower back pain, muscle knots, tightness due to anxiety, swelling or stiffness.
The most popular technique for cupping, called “dry cupping” or “fire cupping,” involves a trained practitioner first placing cups on the patients back and then carefully heating the cups using fire. Sometimes a special cupping “torch” is used to light the cups on fire safely, or in other cases the cups are heated in hot water or oil. The hot cups are sealed off and held in place for five to 15 minutes on the patient’s back while they cool down, which produces a vacuum effect. This is considered a type of “fixed cupping” because the cups aren’t moved around but rather sit still.
The cups contract while on the patient’s skin, which causes suctioning, so the skin is then pulled into the cup, stretching out skin tissue and improving blood flow, which facilitates healing. To light the cups on fire, normally a cotton ball is soaked in rubbing alcohol and then lit, placed into the cup very quickly and then removed. The cups are then placed down on the patient’s skin, and as oxygen is removed, suctioning naturally occurs. “Moving cupping” is similar but involves applying massage oil to the skin first, which helps the heated cups glide over tense areas on the patient’s back.
Back when cupping first originated, animal horns, clay pots, brass cups and bamboo were used to create the cups, but today cups are commonly made out of more durable materials, such as glass or heat-resistant plastic and rubber. The exact type of cup used depends on the practitioner’s preference and the patient’s condition. Cups come in different materials, shapes and sizes, which means some are more useful for targeting certain ailments than others. Nowadays, fire suction cups made out of glass and plastic are the most common, followed by rubber cups. Silicone, bio-magnetic, electric and facial cups are other options.
There are several different cupping techniques used by practitioners today. While cupping using fire is the most common type (usually called “dry cupping”), two less common practices are called “bleeding cupping” and “wet cupping.” Heated and then cooled cups are the traditional way to create suction, but the vacuum effect can also be created with a mechanical suction pump, which is used in most wet cutting techniques.
The terminology used to describe various cupping techniques can get confusing, but “wet cupping” is the name given to the method used most often in parts of the Middle East. Wet cupping, or “bleeding cupping” as it’s sometimes called, is always fireless but involves drawing the patient’s blood using a pump. Wet cupping involves “blood-letting,” usually by making a tiny incision into the patient’s skin before the cup is applied and blood is drawn.
In this technique, the practitioner creates suction with his or her hands and uses needles or a pump to remove a small amount of the patient’s blood, which is thought to improve energy in the body and remove toxins. Tiny pricking needles are inserted into the skin to draw three to four drops of blood before the cup is applied over the site. Or, a pump is used exclusively instead, which might be a “modern” type, such as an electromagnetic pump, or a more traditional pump that uses magnets and gravity. (12)
Is Cupping Therapy Safe?
Cupping might sound a bit scary to someone who’s new to the practice, but rest assured that cupping isn’t usually painful and most trained practitioners are very careful to use sterile equipment. During a cupping session, it’s common to feel some heat and tightness around the cup, but many people find this to actually be relaxing and soothing.
Cupping has come a long way since it first originated in terms of hygiene and improved safety standards. Today, most cupping practitioners use rubber gloves, new and sterile needles (if wet cupping is being done), and alcohol swabs to reduce the risk for contamination or blood transfer. As cupping becomes more popular on a global scale, more nations are mandating that safety guidelines be carefully followed, which is good news for patients.
Cupping is considered a safe practice, but it’s important to find a well-trained practitioner who is licensed and follows legislated guidelines. While the different cupping techniques seem to be similar in terms of effectiveness, dry cupping is likely the safest since it doesn’t involve needles or blood. Make sure to do your research and find an experienced practitioner who is well-trained in using cupping tools, which will ensure you get the most benefits from your session and aren’t at risk for injury.
Cupping should be avoided if the patient is experiencing a skin infection, inflammation, ulcer or sensitivity. It’s also not recommended for pregnant women since not enough research has been done to shown it’s safe. Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for skin discoloration to develop after cupping, which can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. For people with bleeding disorders or who are prone to bruising, cupping should be avoided. It can cause minor and temporary bruising in some people, but this can become problematic for those who don’t heal well from bruises.
Cupping Therapy Takeaways
- It’s common for cupping to be used along with massage therapy, essential oils, acupuncture or even as an adjunct to “Western medicine” treatments.
- Here are five ways that cupping therapy might be able to help you: helps reduce pain, promotes relaxation, boosts skin health, helps treat respiratory issues and colds, and improves digestion.
- Cupping and acupuncture are similar because they both promote optimal “Qi” by drawing energy and blood flow to areas of the body that are experiencing inflammation, prone to low lymphatic circulation or experiencing poor blood flow. Sometimes both practices are done together by placing an acupuncture needle into the patient’s skin and then covering the needle with a cup.
- The types of cupping therapy include dry cupping, fire cupping, bleeding cupping, wet cupping and moving cupping.