Cupping: What It Is & Why You Want It
Have you heard of cupping? Most people have by now as it's been popularized by Michael Phelps and countless other Olympians, professional athletes and celebrities in recent years. You've probably seen cup marks-- those circular marks that look like a bruise or even a hickey. Cupping is a therapy that has been used for thousands of years to treat a number of conditions.
The most traditional use of cupping is for upper respiratory issues; asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, flus and common colds. The cups would be placed on the upper back. While I do use cupping for this and find it quite effective (especially for either acute onset colds/flus or phlegmy asthma) my favorite use of cupping is for musculoskeletal issues.
Cupping can be amazingly effective to treat back and neck tension, headaches/migraines, chest tension, even TMJ. It can also be used on most areas of the body (I've cupped hamstring injuries, IT bands, knees, glutes/piriformis, calves, shoulders, elbows and even the abdomen for GI or GYN issues ...the only areas that in my experience prove too small/bony to place cups have been the feet/ankles and wrists/hands). There are two basic styles of cupping: stationary cups (the cups are simply placed on the affected area and left for 5-15 minutes. This style produces the circular cup marks) or sliding cups (oil or another lubricant is applied to the area, generally on the back, and the cups are placed and then glided by hand across the affected areas. Depending on the strength of the suction, this can be done in a way that may produce marks or can be done lightly to produce no marks).
The sensation of cupping depends on the area being cupped and the style, but generally it feels similar to a deep tissue massage. Cupping SHOULD NOT HURT! I've had a few patients come to me who've been cupped by a non-acupuncturist and told me that it hurt; this means it was done incorrectly. It might be intense-feeling, but in a "hurts so good" sort of way, just like a massage might feel if you are very tight in the area being worked. Some soreness later that day or the next day is normal; outright pain during or after the treatment is not. Always see a licensed acupuncturist for cupping! We are highly trained in this therapy.
I always explain cupping to my patients as the inverse of a massage: where with massage the muscles are pressed into, with cupping they are actually pulled and lifted up off the fascia/bone/supporting structures. This allows for fresh blood, oxygen, lymph to flood the area and as a result releases tension in the area. The marks left behind after cupping look like bruises, but they don't hurt (it's more hickey-like in that sense!). The color of the marking is diagnostic-- the darker the marks, the more stagnation and tension in that particular area. So if I'm cupping a shoulder and all of the marks are pale except one area is almost black-- that's the area to focus on! Additionally, the cup marks can be used as a measure of improvement: with each session the marks should get lighter and lighter as your pain decreases. It's really cool to see! The cup marks can last anywhere from 2-10 days, depending on your circulation. For most people the marks are gone after a few days; I personally have terrible circulation and the marks tend to stay a week or more (I need more treatments!).
Most of my patients who receive cupping get it at the end of their acupuncture appointment (this is included in the cost of an acupuncture treatment) but I also always have a handful of patients who come ONLY for cupping, and that works too! If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can do so from HERE.