What Is Cupping Therapy and How Does It Work?

By Jessica Fuller / April 1, 2017
Cupping massage therapy

Cupping therapy is an interesting form of alternative medicine. Although it’s been practiced for thousands of years it’s shot up in popularity in recent years due to the increase in public figures and athletes using this form of therapy.

So, what is cupping therapy, and how effective is this form of alternative medicine?

The reason it’s obvious when people have a cupping session, athletes in particular, is because it leaves large red circles on the skin for a few weeks after.

Michael Phelps had these distinctive red circles on his back and shoulders in the 2016 Olympics. Signs of cupping has also been seen at other Olympic events and other athletic events.

What Is Cupping Therapy

How Can I Speed up Healing from Cupping Marks

Simply explained, plastic cups are placed on the skin and the air is pumped out to cause a sucking effect.

The vacuum effect causes stagnant blood to come to the surface of the skin. This stops these fluids blocking your body’s healing process, allowing new and increased circulation.

Increased blood flow is great for stimulating the body’s healing process. As well as helping to flush toxins, heal tissues, and more.

The darker the circles left after cupping the more severe the stagnation of the blood in your tissues was, which in turn means the more effective the treatment has been.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine the cups are placed on acupuncture points. They use this therapy to help treat a wide range of health issues, from reducing allergies to clearing up skin conditions or healing muscular injuries.

Different Types of Cupping Therapy

There are a few different types of cupping therapy. Each designed to help with different ailments in a different way or give the patient a different experience.

These are:

Dry Cupping – This is the type of cupping is the one most people have seen. The cups are warmed up and placed on the skin, as they cool it creates the vacuum effect.

Wet Cupping – Known as Hijama, wet cupping is often used after a course of dry cupping as it’s used to draw blood from the patient after the dry cupping has drawn the blood to the surface of the skin.

Fire Cupping – Not quite as dramatic as the name makes it sound, but this form of cupping does use a flame. The therapist will soak a cotton ball with methylated spirits and light it to draw the oxygen out of the cup and create the vacuum effect.

Needle Cupping – If you’re familiar with acupuncture this form of cupping uses both acupuncture and cupping. The needles are used first, then dry cupping is used over the top of the needles.

Does Cupping Therapy Work

Like a lot of alternative therapies, there has not been enough studies to really point at stats and figures and say, there you do that’s what it does in black and white.

Some interesting studies were carried out and documented by PLOS One however (Source). Concluding that cupping is effective for treating certain conditions, but further studies are required.

Another study followed 40 patients suffering from arthritis in their knees. The study found that the patients who underwent cupping therapy reported a reduction in the pain they were living with (source).

There are people who will still be on either side of the fence when it comes to believing in the validity of the results. Obviously, the patients being treated were well aware what was happening, so unlike oral medicines, you can’t rule out the placebo effect.

The real evidence is really in the results though. Regardless of what percent is a placebo, psychological, or physical.

Seeing professional athletes at the very top of their game such as Michael Phelps using cupping therapy is reassuring. Along with the numerous other athletes or patients suffering from various conditions.

Not to mention that cupping has been used for thousands of years and practiced all across the world. Plus, it was believed to have been developed in different countries independent of being shown the techniques.

Cupping Massage Bruising Marks

Cupping Massage Bruising Marks

The red marks left by cupping isn’t actually bruising. A bruise is caused when the tissue comes into contact with some form of impact that breaks the capillaries and fluids rush the surface to heal the injury.

The vacuum effect from cupping causes the stagnant blood in the area under the cup to be drawn to the surface of the skin.

The red marks are formed from this blood, and depicted by the color of the circles. It’s not damaged tissue bruising as some people believe.

How Long Do Cupping Marks Last?

The red circles left after cupping can last anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks. As soon as you’ve had a treatment you will have a good idea how long they will last by looking at how dark they are.

The darker the circles, the more stagnant blood that has been pulled to the surface and will need to dissipate.

Does Cupping Hurt?

One of the first questions most people ask is, ‘does cupping therapy hurt?’.

It’s always hard to answer these questions as everyone has a different pain threshold, but in a word, I’d say – no.

It’s certainly nothing to be concerned about, and the idea of pain should never stop you going ahead and booking a session.

It’s certainly an intense feeling at first when you feel the suction of the cup. They pull on the skin and there is a tingling sensation.

But once the endorphins kick in you can lay there and relax while the therapist does their work. The whole session shouldn’t last much longer than 15-20 minutes.

Cupping Therapy For Weight Loss

You may have seen cupping therapy recommended for weight loss. While cupping will not result in weight loss alone, there are some benefits to cupping that can help aid weight loss by:

  • Helping relieve stress and anxiety through relaxation
  • Stimulating your body to release toxins, which can include water retention
  • Improving digestive health
  • Promoting an effective metabolism

If you’re also being less mobile due to injuries or living with chronic pain, cupping can reduce the pain and help you heal up. This can help you get back to your daily routines or exercising again to aid weight loss.

The underlying message here is that you’re helping your body function more optimally, recover faster, and flushing toxins through the therapy.

All of which help as part of a weight loss lifestyle. Losing weight takes dedication and commitment, there are no fast fixes, but everything you do to look after your health plays a part.

Cupping Therapy Michael Phelps

Seeing as Michael Phelps caused such a media stir when he appeared with cupping marks on his back and shoulders let’s look at why he chose this therapy.

He added a load more gold medals to his long list of achievements after cupping, so while we will never know if he would have had the same results either way, here are some benefits he would have had:

Increased blood flow – helps stimulate faster healing of muscles and tissues.

Reduces soreness – important when you have an intense training workout routine.

Reduced chance of injury – any way to reduce the chance of injury is a must for a professional athlete.

Flushes toxins – a buildup of toxins can cause your immune system to be compromised and leave you feeling sluggish.

As you can see, all of the above may be small benefits that you can argue anyone can get in other ways, but combined they might just be that slight edge an athlete needs.

Cupping Therapy Side Effects

There are very few side effects to be concerned about with cupping therapy. Although it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor first if you have any concerns.

Always go to a professional, licensed therapist that you feel comfortable with, some of the possible side effects include:

  • Sensitivity and pain
  • Mild burns
  • Bruising
  • Allergic reactions
  • Skin infections

What to Expect after Cupping and How to Heal Quicker

Everyone has a different feeling after a cupping session, especially if it’s your first session. There are a few things you can do to help speed up the healing process and make sure you get the most from the treatment however;

Keep hydrated – As with nursing any injury or after any form of massage therapy, your body needs all the hydration and nutrition it can get to help up.

Make sure you drink plenty of water over the coming days and eat well as this helps flush more toxins from your system.

Cover the cupped area – You will be a little sensitive and tender on the areas that have been cupped for a few days after treatment.

Keep the area covered up and avoid extreme temperatures, either hot or cold. So that means no baths or showers for a day.

Hard physical activity can cause the circle to take longer to clear up too, which is why you often see them on athletes.

Avoid alcohol – While you’re healing and flushing toxins from your body it makes sense not to add more toxins!

Avoid drinking alcohol and other toxic substances. Give your body a period of detox to maximize the benefits from healing and the speed of recovery.

Cupping Therapy Video

About the author

Jessica Fuller

I started studying and experimenting with alternative medicine, different massage techniques, and alternative therapies after graduating. I also love travelling and writing, so I found a way to combine all my loves - blogging!

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