What the heck is “cupping”… and is it safe?

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If you followed the news coverage of the Olympic Games in Rio last summer, you might have noticed something slightly… odd.

Specifically, odd-looking bruise-like splotches covering particular athlete’s bodies, most notably on US swimmer Michael Phelps.

Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston rave about the benefits.

Are they mysterious bruises or giant hickeys?  Did Michael survive a vicious attack from a competing swim team or have an unfortunate incident with a vacuum cleaner nozzle?

None of the above! They’re the result of a therapeutic technique known as “cupping.”

Cupping is not new. It has been practiced for thousands of years, but it has recently been re-popularized due to elite athletes like Phelps.

So what the heck is it? What does it do? Is it painful? Is it safe?

Here’s a quick overview:

What is cupping?

When you book a cupping session, you’ll typically go to an alternative/complementary medicine clinic, an acupuncture clinic, or a Chinese medicine clinic to see a cupping therapist.

You’ll lie face-down on a table—similar to a massage table. Your cupping therapist will warm up several glasses or plastic cups and then place them directly on your back, shoulders, and sometimes other areas, creating a suction effect. (Here’s a visual.)

The theory is that this type of suction helps to improve your circulation, shift “stagnant” or “blocked energy,” and alleviate muscle pain and stiffness.

The cups stay on your body for 5-15 minutes. After being removed, the cups typically leave behind a circular bruise.

Does it hurt?

Some people say “not at all.” Others say “yes, a lot!” When the warm cups are applied, many people describe a feeling of pulling along with some tingling. When the cups are removed at the end of your treatment session, there can be a brief stinging feeling, like having a Band-Aid quickly removed.

Where did cupping come from?

Various forms of cupping were practiced in ancient Egypt, China, and the Middle East. Very, very old records indicate that cupping may have been practiced as far back as 1550 BC.

Does it really work?

Gentle cupping facials are said to increase blood flow to the skin and decrease swelling, giving the face a beautiful glow. Thank goodness this type of cupping doesn’t cause bruising!

Cupping enthusiasts claim that the method can help with all kinds of health issues including muscle tightness, of course, but also respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, asthma, arthritis, and digestive problems.

However, it’s important to note that no research or clinical studies have been performed on cupping, so it’s hard to say if cupping really works or not.

My advice: If you decide to book a cupping session, I encourage you to go with an open mind, but also a healthy dose of skepticism. If it helps you feel better, that’s great! But try to keep your expectations low.

And of course, be sure to choose a very experienced cupping therapist. You don’t want a “newbie” putting hot glass cups onto your skin!

Personally, I havent tried cupping yet, although if the opportunity presents itself… I might give it a whirl! My co-workers might give me some quizzical glances around the office if I show up covered in circular bruises, but I’ll just show them this article to explain everything!

Dr. Sue

Have you tried cupping? How did it go? Would you recommend it? Feel free to chat with me on Twitter @DrSueFromFargo—and tell me about your experience! 

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