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What Is Cupping Therapy, and Does It Work?

When you’re stressed, tense or battling muscle aches and pains, you may consider getting a massage, taking a hot bath, stretching or trying deep breathing/meditation. Some, however, are participating in a therapy trend called cupping. 

If you follow sports, particularly Olympic swimming, you may recall the svelte Michael Phelps entering the pool of the 2016 Olympic Games with round red (dare I say, hickey-like) circles dotting his shoulders and back. Cupping therapy is a popular technique among professional athletes and even celebs like The Rock and Justin Bieber, but does it work—and more importantly, is it safe?

Are you considering cupping? Here we dive into what it is, how it works and the pros and cons of cupping therapy.

What is cupping therapy?

While the therapy has grown in popularity in the last decade, cupping isn’t a new-age technique. Its roots – and rings – run deep.

“Cupping therapy, also known as myofascial decompression, can be traced back to ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures,” said John E. Ebinger, PT, a board-certified sports medicine specialist at Banner Physical Therapy in Phoenix, AZ. “It’s been described as one of the oldest treatment interventions, and its history dates back to 1500 B.C.”

In ancient times, people used it for lung conditions, fever and other ailments. Today, practitioners use it for pain relief and musculoskeletal injuries like strains, sprains and back injuries.

The theory of Eastern medicine is where there is stagnation, there is pain,” Ebinger said. “Remove the stagnation, and you remove the pain. This is what cupping seeks to address.”

How does cupping therapy work?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), cupping involves placing cups (made of glass, plastic, bamboo or ceramic) on the skin to create suction. Cups can be placed on the back, shoulders, stomach, legs or any muscle group where it’s easy to attach the cups. 

“This suction creates a negative pressure environment allowing for myofascial decompression as the skin is drawn into the cups,” Ebinger said. “While massage therapy uses direct pressure to release tension, cupping uses negative pressure to lift the muscle fibers and draw blood to the area.” 

There are two types of cupping methods, including wet and dry. And two techniques, stagnant and dynamic cupping.

“Dry cupping uses a pumping method to draw the skin tissue inside the cup,” Ebinger said. “The subcutaneous tissue (the bottom layer of your skin) is pulled into the cups and held in place for a small amount of time—anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 minutes.”

With dry cupping, the cups can slide across the skin or remain in place, known as dynamic and stagnant cupping respectively.

Wet cupping, on the other hand, goes a step further. After creating a mild suction, a practitioner removes the cup and uses a small scalpel to make a tiny cut on that area of the skin. Then they use a second suction to draw out a small amount of the blood.

Is cupping painful?

If performed by a licensed practitioner, cupping shouldn’t be painful. It may cause temporary bruising (known as ecchymosis), swelling or soreness, depending on the person or amount of treatment done. The spots left behind typically fade after several days or a week. 

Some people have reported feeling lightheaded or dizzy and experiencing flu-like symptoms, like nausea and body aches. 

What are the pros and cons of cupping?

Cupping may help reduce pain, but the evidence isn’t very strong. 

“There are several purported benefits of cupping that include reduced pain, muscle tightness and inflammation, improved blood flow (circulation) and increased range of motion, yet there is very little data or high-quality clinical research to support these claims,” Ebinger said. 

There are very few risks of cupping but be aware cupping can leave behind those hickey-like bruises on your skin and may worsen eczema or psoriasis. There is also a small risk of infection, especially if wet cupping is involved. 

Should I get cupping therapy?

Even if considered safe, cupping isn’t for everyone. It is not recommended for people with liver, kidney or heart failure or those with a pacemaker. As well, it can’t be used if you have hemophilia, anemia or similar blood disorders, heart disease or are on blood thinners. 

“If pregnant, it has been advised to avoid cupping to the abdomen and lower back,” Ebinger said. 

If there is suspicion of an infection or an open wound, cupping shouldn’t be performed. 

Takeaway

Cupping is a type of alternative medicine where cups are placed on your skin to create suction. It’s used to help with things like chronic pain, inflammation and other conditions, and athletes and celebrities swear by the practice. However, there is very little data or high-quality research to truly support the benefits of cupping.

Cupping is generally safe, but it isn’t for everyone. Before seeking out cupping therapy, talk to your health care provider to ensure you meet the criteria for this type of treatment. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.

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