While it’s all the rage now, you may not realize that cupping therapy started back in (very) ancient times. First, a general definition of it: The art of cupping involves placing cups on the skin to create suction, all designed to improve the flow of energy in the body and facilitate healing.
One of the oldest medical texts to mention cupping therapy is Eber’s papyrus (1550 B.C.) from Ancient Egypt, though cupping is a part of many ancient healing systems, including Chinese, Unani, traditional Korean, and Tibetan. Even the Greeks were in on it, with Hippocrates, (referred to as the “father” of medicine) having compiled descriptions of cupping techniques. Back to modern times and me, however. Several years ago I was the recipient of this ancient therapy after an injury I sustained and ever since, I have been a huge proponent of it, having been trained on it several years back. Elsewhere you’l find that it is a treatment primarily offered by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.
Many believe that cupping helps balance yin and yang, or the negative and positive, within the body, and restoring a balance between these two extremes is thought to help with the body’s resistance to pathogens as well as its ability to increase blood flow and reduce pain.
Cupping increases blood circulation to the area where the cups are placed, such as relieving muscle tension, which can improve overall blood flow and promote cell repair. It may also help form new connective tissues and create new blood vessels in the tissue. Many use it to complement their care for various symptoms and conditions, including improving immunity — something near and dear to us in the age of COVID and the latest flu. The effects of cupping therapy include promoting the skin’s blood flow as well as altering its biomechanical properties, increasing pain thresholds, improving local anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism, reducing inflammation, and boosting cellular immunity.
Between 2017 and now, a number of studies have shown that the activation of Heme oxygenase-1, a gene that plays a critical role in the prevention of vascular inflammation, could account for many of cupping therapy’s claims of local and systemic health benefits. While no single theory exists to explain the whole effects of cupping, some theories include the altering pain signal processing, the use of counter-irritation to reduce pain, the stimulation of increased blood circulation through the release of nitric oxide, and increasing the flow of lymph in the lymphatic system. It is also thought to decrease uric acid as well as both types of cholesterol.
Because the medical community has a tough time embracing alternative medicines, more quality research is needed to confirm the effects of cupping and the mechanisms by which they may or may not support healing. But because of its positive effect on the lymphatic system (partially responsible for eliminating your body’s waste), cupping has become wildly popular. Especially at the time of year, when everyone is up to their ears in fatty foods from the holidays, eliminating toxins has a tremendous appeal.
As for how it’s done, suction is primarily created through the use of bell-shaped glass, plastic, or silicone cups. The four main categories of cupping performed today include dry cupping, wet/bleeding cupping (not one in which I specialize), running cupping which involves moving suction cups around the body after applying oil to massage the desired area, and flash cupping, which involves quick, repeated suction and release of cups on an area of the body. Types range from sports and orthopedic cupping to aquatic cupping. We decide together which type to use based on both your preferences and needs.
Just know next time to see an Olympic swimmer or celebrity showing off a back full of circular red marks on their arms, back and shoulders that they were willing recipients of this ancient form of health therapy.