A therapeutic cupping treatment involves warming and placing cups, usually made of glass, on the skin. By warming the air within the cup, a vacuum is created, and when it is applied to the skin, the tissue is drawn up into the cup. This increases the blood flow, loosens the fascia or connective tissue, and is thought to stimulate healing. It is similar to the way deep tissue massage can be used to break up scar tissue and reduce pain.
The cups are often placed on the back, neck, and shoulders or the site of pain. Cupping may cause temporary bruising and soreness, depending upon the degree of suction created by the vacuum and the level of internal stagnation. According to TCM, this would be a favourable outcome, suggesting the treatment has successfully removed toxins and stagnation. The cups are removed by lifting one edge, which allows air in and breaks the seal and vacuum.
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.
Cupping increases blood circulation to the area where the cups are placed. This may relieve 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.
People use cupping to complement their care for a host of symptoms and conditions.
Research into cupping
There is a growing body of research digging into how and why cupping may work.
A 2018 review of studies noted that cupping therapy has reported benefits for a variety of conditions that can be categorized as either localized or systematic diseases.
Cupping is thought to alleviate symptoms by promoting peripheral (close to the skin) blood circulation and improving immunity.
According to the 2018 review, 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
boosting cellular immunity
According to a 2017 study, the mechanical effect of cupping increases local blood flow and stretches underlying tissue.
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 claimed local and systemic health benefits.
A 2019 study noted that no single theory exists to explain the whole effects of cupping, but some 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)