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What is Cupping?

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

Cupping is an ancient massage based modality, harking back to Egyptian times and also used in Chinese and Islamic cultures.

It involves placing glass suction cups on different parts of the body, such as back or neck. Some therapists create negative pressure in the cup by heating the air inside the cup before placing on the skin. Because hot air is less dense it creates suction as it cools, which sucks your skin up into the glass. Instead of heat, other therapists used a manual suction pump.

The suction stimulates blood flow to the muscle, which facilitates healing, and lifts the connective tissue, allowing the muscle to breathe.

It is similar to massage with hands except that with hands the pressure is downward. With cups the pressure is in an upward direction.

People have used cupping for centuries to ease back pain, neck pain, headaches and other problems. While research on the benefits of cupping is scarce, the treatment risks are low.

The suction force from cupping breaks open tiny blood vessels under the skin. You will have round bruise-like marks that fade in a week or two.

How Does Cupping Work?

The effects of cupping therapy include:

  • promoting the skin’s blood flow

  • changing the skin’s biomechanical properties

  • increasing pain thresholds

  • improving local anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism

  • reducing inflammation

  • boosting cellular immunity [1]

Even though this therapy has been around for centuries, science has not quite caught up in being able to define how exactly it works. There are various theories, one of which is the Pain Gate Theory. This theory surmises that pain operates with gates and if there are more than one stimulus the latter can turn off the pain from the original source. This is similar to how we instinctively rub our knee, for example, after bumping it.

Other theories include:

  • altering pain signal processing

  • using counter-irritation, or pain to reduce pain

  • stimulating increased blood circulation through the release of nitric oxide

  • stimulating the immune system with artificial local inflammation

  • increasing the level of immune products, such as interferon and tumor necrotizing factor

  • increasing the flow of lymph in the lymphatic system

  • decreasing uric acid and both types of cholesterol

  • changing the molecular structure and function of hemoglobin (Hb) [2]

Who shouldn’t get cupping?

Because researchers know little about cupping’s effects on pregnancy, moms-to-be shouldn’t get the therapy. You should also forego cupping if you have:

  • Bleeding disorders like hemophilia.

  • Blood clotting problems, such as deep vein thrombosis or history of strokes.

  • Skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis.

  • Seizures (epilepsy).


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