What Are The Benefits Of Cupping?

When Michael Phelps, the super swimmer, showed up at the 2016 Rio Olympics with mysterious circular bruises on his shoulders, the social media was abuzz. Are they tattoos? Did he play paintball? Or did he accidentally fall asleep on his Olympic medals? No, those perfect circular patches were actually the result of cupping, an alternative treatment that’s been in use for ages to relieve pain and muscle soreness. Thanks to Mr. Phelps, there has been new-found interest in this ancient therapy.

Cupping is a traditional alternative practice in which a cup made of glass, metal, silicone, or bamboo is placed on the skin as a suction device to pull the superficial muscle layer upward. It is supposed to increase blood flow, which in turn helps relieve pain, ease stiff muscles, and reduce fatigue. Vacuum created using heat (by lighting a flame inside the cup) or by a mechanical pump creates a suction effect. Many cups are used simultaneously and placed on the skin for about 5 to 15 minutes. Some therapists also use herbal oils to glide the cups along the body. Cupping works akin to acupuncture, targeting painful body parts through specific acupoints and applying pressure on them. It is generally performed in muscular areas such as the hip, upper leg, the back of the knees, neck, entire back, and shoulder.


Cupping In History

Cupping has been in use for ages in Egypt and Greece – it’s even described in Ebers Papyrus, the oldest medical textbook dating back to 1550 BC. Some of the famous proponents of this practice include Hippocrates and Prophet Muhammad. Cupping is also one of the oldest practices in Chinese traditional medicine, in use since the 4th century.

Types Of Cupping

Cupping works in three ways. In wet cupping or hijama, an incision is made in the skin and a small quantity of blood is drawn through the cup. This is believed to remove toxins from the body and promote healing. In dry cupping, there is no blood loss – the blood vessels are only expanded to increase blood flow. Massage cupping involves moving the cup along the body by lubricating the skin with essential oils and herbs.


So is cupping as painful as it looks? The redness and marks will last a few days. But according to experts, while it does produce mild swelling and bruises, cupping shouldn’t cause pain when done right.1 You might feel a slight pulling sensation during the procedure but this isn’t unpleasant and settles down soon. Wet cupping can cause slight discomfort because of the cuts, but since these are superficial they should heal quickly. If at all you feel pain during cupping, inform the practitioner immediately so they can modify the technique. If the skin breaks or is inflamed, the procedure has to be stopped right away so it doesn’t cause any complications.

Does It Work? Benefits Of Cupping

Cupping has been in the eye of the storm for a while now. Many conventional doctors believe that cupping is nothing but a gimmick, attributing its success to the placebo effect, where the actual treatment doesn’t work but the patients strongly believe it does. There are a handful of studies on cupping benefits, but some of them are inconclusive while many others emphasize the need for more research in the area.


Traditional practitioners, however, swear by this procedure. Chinese medicine works on the principle of flow of energy or qi. Illnesses occur when there is a blockage in the flow of energy. Cupping is supposed to aid the free flow of energy, thus healing the body and restoring balance. By stimulating the largest organ in the body, that is the skin, cupping is believed to yield immense health benefits.2 Here are some of the conditions that could potentially be eased by cupping.

Pain: Cupping is considered a safe and natural way to reduce joint and muscle pain. It works by reducing inflammation, increasing blood circulation to the area, and also by acting on the autonomic nervous system, helping to reduce the sensation of pain and increase the subject’s sense of well-being.3 One study that examined dry cupping for chronic non-specific neck pain found that in the target group, neck pain reduced gradually within a series of five sessions over two weeks. The subjects also reported that their shoulder and neck muscles were more relaxed and the region was more mobile now.4 Dry cupping was also found to alleviate symptoms of knee osteoarthritis in another study.5 Wet cupping reduced the intensity and frequency of migraines in a study conducted on 70 individuals.6


Muscular Stiffness: The Olympic athletes are sporting their purple patches with good reason! Cupping is known to improve flexibility and reduce exercise-related fatigue.7 It also works as a myofascial release technique that reduces strain and increases muscular range of motion.8

Respiratory Issues: According to a Pacific College of Oriental Medicine report, respiratory illnesses are one of the common conditions that cupping can combat. Ancient Chinese texts even recommend it for pulmonary tuberculosis.9 When used along with Ping Chuan, a Chinese herbal ointment, cupping was found to enhance immunity in asthmatic bronchitis patients.10


Hypertension: Cupping has a mild sedative effect on the nervous system and is useful in managing high blood pressure.11

Cosmetic Enhancements: By rousing the lymphatic system to remove toxins, cupping works as an effective and non-invasive method to remove cellulite.12 When used alongside acupuncture, cupping can help to manage weight13 and even reduce acne.14


Is Cupping Safe?

Although cupping has been in vogue for nearly 3000 years, with a significant celebrity fanbase, you should tread carefully. Apart from the tell-tale round bruises and discomfort – even if temporary, it also carries the risk of burns, blisters, blood clots, and skin infection if not done right. If you decide to try cupping, the first step is to have a word with your doctor and hire a professional certified therapist. It is also prudent to start with dry cupping, the less invasive of the two, and treat minor ailments like body pain and muscular tension. According to the International Cupping Therapy Association, people with heart conditions, renal problems, and skin allergies should steer clear of cupping. For pregnant women, cupping in the lower body (abdomen, lower back, and legs) is a strict no-no.15

As of now, the beneficial claims of cupping are mainly anecdotal – further in-depth research will help to prove its reach and efficiency. After all, the Olympian god himself has used it and given us, with his 28th medal, a favorable verdict!