What is Cupping?


What is Cupping?

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What is cupping?

Written by Stacy Reed, LMT, LPN

Cupping therapy commonly referred as Cupping, is form of an alternative ancient medicine which consists of creating a suction on the human skin using either heat or mechanical devices (electrical or hand pumps) for a few minutes to create suction. This therapy is used to help with pain, blood flow, as a type of deep tissue massage, inflammation, and relaxation and well being. It is the inverse of the typical massage therapy. Cupping involves suction to tug the muscles, skin and tissues upwards instead of exerting pressure on body parts for healing. 

It is an ancient therapy practiced by Chinese, Egyptians and European civilizations starting as early as 1,500 D.C. Nowadays, cupping therapy is used in spa treatments, chiropractics and physical therapy due to its versatility, effectiveness, inexpensive and non-invasive form of treatment that can also be used in combination with other types of therapeutic approaches.

Cupping session may cause temporary soreness and bruising which may last for a few days or weeks depending on the degree of suction caused by the vacuum and the level of internal stagnation. 

Most commonly cups used for cupping are be made of glass. However, many years ago, they were made out of earthenware (clay), animal horns or bamboo. Other cups being introduced include rubber, silicone, and glass cups with rubber bulbs.

How it is done

Cupping is highly recommended to be taken from a highly trained and certified therapist. We have two main types of cupping, including: dry and wet. Both types of cupping involve flammable substance such as paper, herbs or alcohol put in a cup and set on fire. As the fire is about to go off, the therapist places the cup upside down on the skin. 

Dry cupping procedure involves creation of a vacuum in the cup and distraction of the soft tissues, which leads to increased circulation to the skin. The effects are noticed when skin redness and swelling due fluids and blood starts to show underneath the cups.

Wet cupping procedure takes dry cupping technique a step further. It is conducted after dry cupping for a period 3 to 5 minutes. Tiny cuts or pricks are performed on the raised area to enable elimination of toxic fluids and blood. The cuts or pricks can be performed using three prolonged needles, scalpels or lancelets. This can be considered as a form of bloodletting.

Below is a procedure how cupping therapy is conducted:

  1. The first step is to locate areas or sections that need to be treated. The therapist using his hands palpates the joints and muscles, and thus, relaxation process begins
  2. The therapist applies a light oil such as safflower or sunflower or any other type of herbal oil on the body part or section where suction is intended to be created.
  3. The correct size of the cup, which are available in various sizes, is selected which is determined by the area to be treated. The material used to make the cups is important because of flexibility to move over the body and transparency to allow the therapist to monitor the skin’s condition. The color of the skin helps the therapist to determine the procedure’s effectiveness and make adjustments accordingly.
  4. Suction is now created. This can be accomplished in a number of ways:
  • Use of heat to warm the cups to enable the cooling air in the cup to create a vacuum, which then tugs the skin upwards. The therapist uses a flammable substance such as a paper or cotton ball soaked in alcohol to heat the cup.
  • Another method is use of an air pump to siphon air out of the cup. The air pump is preferable because it produces the required vacuum used to create the optimum suction amount for the therapy to be effective.

After creating suction, the object is taken off and the cup is right away placed on the skin. It is important to remember that the burning object is not supposed to come into contact with the patient’s skin to avoid burn.

  1. A vacuum is created as the air inside the cup cools. 
  2. The cup is allowed to stay on the skin for a few minutes to allow the muscles to loosen and relax. Then, the therapist gently moves the cup over the skin in smooth motions to allow the vacuum to raise the skin and tissues.
  3. Parts of the excessive stagnation or inflammation causes the cups to resist movement or drag a little
  4. To remove the cups after the therapy session, one edge is lifted to allow air in, which breaks the seal and vacuum.  
  5. After the cups are removed, the therapist may cover the cupped skin areas with bandage or ointment to prevent infection. Marks or bruises on the skin heal within 10 days of the session.

Cupping therapy can be used on hips, thighs, shoulders, neck back, abdomen, upper arms and calves, sacral region, scapula and spine.

Effects of cupping?

When suction is performed on the body through massage suction, a number of changes are experienced about four inches in the body. Some of cupping results include:

  • Supplying nutrients and oxygen to the cells
  • Getting rid of chronic congestion
  • Tightened muscles are softened
  • Connecting tissues are lifted
  • Stimulating and calming the peripheral nervous system
  • Loosening of knots and adhesions
  • Cleans the lymph and blood
  • Cupping assists in balancing PH levels
  • The immune system is strengthened by promoting the lymphatic fluid flow
  • Pulls supply of blood to the skin
  • Drives out cold, wind and damp to cure joint and muscle stiffness, pain and arthritis
  • Makes possible the movement of blood and Qi locally and systematically
  • Relieves inflammation from the tissues to allow them to heal
  • Draining and releasing of surplus fluids and toxins such as lactic acid from the cells and tissues
  • Treats fever, anxiety, stress, depression and excess heat conditions
  • The suction generated by cupping gets rid of stagnant fluids and pathogens to promote fresh oxygenated, nutrient rich blood and lymph
  • Reduces cellulite and wrinkles
  • Promotes healing of old injuries

Uses of cupping therapy

Cupping has for many years been used to cure a number of conditions. In 2012, the journal PLoS One published a review of cupping therapy that suggests its healing power may be more than just a placebo effect. The researchers found that cupping therapy may help with the following conditions, among others:

  • Chronic gastric pain
  • Acne
  • Herpes Zoster
  • Depression
  • Kidney disorders
  • Post surgery adhesions 
  • Post injury trauma
  • Liver disorders
  • Headaches
  • Intestinal disorders
  • Gynecological disorders
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Arthritis
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Cellulite
  • Menopausal discomforts
  • Musculo-skeletal problems
  • Colds and respiratory infections
  • Bronchial asthma and congestion
  • Colds and influenza


Comparison between traditional cupping and modern massage cupping

The practice of cupping therapy dates back 3000 years ago. Although the effects remain the same for many years, however, the cup materials and techniques have changed over the years.  Today, Traditional Chinese Cupping (TCC) is practiced by Acupuncturists or Naturopathic doctors. With TCC a partial vacuum is created in cups and placed on the skin either by means of heat or suction. The cups are stationary in the same area for a period of five to thirty minutes. The goal of Chinese Cupping therapy is to move stagnation of blood and chi and disperse internal heat. Cupping therapies are also generally used in many cultures on both adults and children for respiratory conditions, pain relief, and multiple other uses in home health care.

Massage Cupping Therapy is a more commonly used tool by massage therapists and other healthcare practitioners. Before applying the cup, oil or lotion is administered to facilitate smooth movement. The entire back may be treated, including the neck, hips and thigh areas. In addition abdominal area, arms and face can also be treated. The goal of Massage Cupping is to strengthen or activate the self-healing processes of the body.  Almost every area of the body responds to this unique treatment.


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