What Is Cupping?
Fans of the Rio Olympics are talking about more than the world-record breaking performances they have seen so far. Olympians like swimmers Michael Phelps and Pavel Sankovich have made headlines for something else—the striking dark red marks dotting their shoulders and backs. The spots are the result of a burgeoning trend of an ancient therapy known as cupping.
The cupping technique dates back over 3,000 years and has been practiced by both Western and Eastern cultures including Egypt, Greece, and China. Cupping is traditionally performed using thick round glasses that form a tight seal and cause a vacuum effect when applied to the skin. The vacuum is produced by negative pressure that is created by heating the air within the cup, then allowing it to cool and contract while in contact with the skin.
The cups are typically placed on the back, chest, and stomach for 5-20 minutes. This is known as “dry cupping.” Conversely, in “wet cupping,” small cuts in the skin are made prior to applying the glasses, drawing blood into the cups.
The negative pressure caused by the vacuum increases blood supply to the skin and deeper tissues. A side effect of this high pressure is rupturing of the delicate blood vessels in the skin, resulting in temporary round bruises. The color and duration of the bruise depends on the size of cups, strength of vacuum, and how long they are applied. If severe enough, long term discoloration may result.
A foundational tenant of Eastern medicine is that diseases are caused by stagnant or blocked Qi, the life force. The philosophy behind cupping is to unblock and correct imbalances in the flow of Qi, thereby, leading to a greater well-being. This also underlies the practice of acupuncture; hence many acupuncture points are also used in cupping. One theory is that nerve centers in the brain and spinal cord are stimulated when pressure is applied to these points on the skin, thus leading to a release of endorphins and serotonin which creates an analgesic or pain-reducing effect.
Cupping is primarily used for musculoskeletal pain, although has also been used for nerve pain, headache, and stomachaches. While gaining in popularity as a complementary treatment for these conditions, further investigation is necessary to elucidate the efficacy of this technique.
Cupping is typically not painful, though patients may experience a warming sensation where the cups are applied due to increased blood flow. As previously mentioned, bruising is an expected side effect of therapy. Burns and blistering may occur if the cups are too hot or are left on for too long. Rarely, infections can occur from improperly sterilized cups.
Finding an experienced practitioner in complementary and alternative medicine will reduce these risks. Discuss with your doctor if you are considering or are interested in trying cupping. Westlake Dermatology recommends visiting the National Institute of Health’s Center for Complementary and Integrative Health for more information on cupping as well as advice for finding a reputable practitioner.