What Is Cupping Therapy? And Is It Right For You?

Cupping is all the rage with Olympic athletes, but what about the rest of us?

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When Vivian Manning-Schaffel leaves her acupuncturist’s office after a cupping session, her back is covered in cup-shaped bruises, and she’s sore. But the NYC-based writer says she knows what’s coming: Her muscles will start to ease out of their clenched position, and she’ll suddenly feel like she has a whole new back. “Cupping is so amazing,” Manning-Schaffel says. “It’s the part of the [acupuncture] treatment I look forward to the most.” Looking forward to a bruised back covered in big red marks might sound a bit…odd. But thanks to a degenerative disease that can leave her back in spasms, Manning-Schaffel has found herself among a growing number of Americans who’ve made cupping a regular part of their wellness routines. Rooted in Chinese medicine, cupping has been around for centuries, but the practice has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Photos of Olympians with skin that looks like it’s covered in grade school hickies pop up regularly in the media, proving that some of the nation’s most elite athletes turn to cupping. And then there are those Facebook friends who are crowing about the miraculous new treatment that’s cured their back pain. If you’ve been tempted to try cupping, you’re not alone. Here’s a look at what it really is…and what the scientists say it can do for you.

What is cupping, anyway?

Remember when you were a kid, and you use to place your mom’s vacuum hose on your arm or leg before flipping the switch? Then you’ve got at least somewhat of an idea of what cupping is all about. As the name implies, cupping involves small cups (typically made of glass, bamboo, or silicone) that are placed on the skin in areas where someone feels pain. A vacuum pump is used to create suction so the small cups grip the skin, pulling the blood toward the skin’s surface. It’s that increased blood flow that’s credited with most of the practice’s healing properties, but different practitioners offer techniques that will enhance the therapy. Some acupuncturists use typical acupuncture needle techniques in conjunction with cupping, while others will move the cups around on the surface for a suction-based massage. Although cupping traditionally has been offered in acupuncturists’ offices, the spike in wellness centers in the U.S. and the surge in alternative pain treatment popularity have cupping moving into the mainstream too. These days you’ll find cupping offered at some pain clinics and physical therapy offices as well as alternative wellness centers. No matter where you go, though, it’s wise to ask if the cupping procedure will be dry or wet. With wet cupping or hijama, therapists typically make small incisions in the skin to allow blood to escape. That step is skipped in the dry version of the practice.

What the Science Says

Thousands of years of practice doesn’t always mean something is scientifically sound (see also: throwing salt over your shoulder or knocking on wood). But when it comes to cupping, researchers have dug deep into whether there are therapeutic benefits and come up with good news. One look at 75 different randomized controlled trials of traditional Chinese medicine practices concluded that cupping is “relatively safe” and “could be efficacious in treating the pain and disability” associated with chronic neck pain and chronic low back pain, specifically.

Is cupping for you?

Because it’s not a traditional Western modality, it’s no surprise that the National Institutes of Health recommends against using cupping in place of traditional doctor’s visits, and it’s always wise to visit your physician before embarking on any new wellness plan. But if a doctor signs off, cupping could prove promising for countless people. Studies have found cupping therapy beneficial for migraine sufferers, people with lower back pain, and even those with skin conditions like psoriasis. If your pain clinic or physical therapy office has a cupping practitioner on staff, the hunt is made easy. No such luck? The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine hosts an easily searchable directory that can help you find a practitioner. After your visit, you can expect to feel some soreness like Manning-Schaffel does, and you’ll likely get a warning that you should up your water intake, similar to a post-massage regimen. But you may just find yourself looking forward to that back covered in red marks…for the sake of the relief that comes next!

Jeanne Sager
Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She has strung words together for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.

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