Just about everybody who has tuned in to the Olympics this week has been noticing the strangely-symmetrical, perfectly- circular marks on many of the athletes’ bodies. Many of my patients immediately recognized them for what they were: cupping marks. And they know that cupping is not just for elite athletes, but for anyone slowed down by pain.
Cupping can be done in a variety of ways with several types of equipment, but at heart, cupping involves creating negative space in a vessel and using that force to change blood flow patterns. I often refer to it as ‘a massage in reverse’. The type of cupping I do most commonly is fire cupping, with moving cups. In this technique, a flame is inserted briefly into a glass cup, the flame is withdrawn, and the cup is placed down on the skin. A vacuum is created inside the cup by the cooling air, and the flesh is slightly sucked up into the cup, creating a seal, and lifting and expanding the tissue. I also usually put salve on the skin so that the cups can be slid from place to place.
According to Chinese medicine, cupping pulls out ‘toxins’. These ‘toxins’ are very broadly construed: literal chemical poisons, stagnant Blood and Qi from old injuries, external influences like dampness and heat, and even emotional pains and traumas that get lodged in the skin, muscle, and connective tissue. Western biomedicine also acknowledges the power of cupping, although they have a different explanation for it: cupping can create space in the tissues for new blood flow to be established—something that can be restricted by something like a chronic injury.
The Olympians you’re seeing in Rio, and most of my patients, love cupping for its pain-relieving ability. It can really unlock pain from the muscles in ways that other things can’t. However, it’s also used in Chinese medicine for internal medicine. Some other common applications are moving stuck phlegm out of the lungs after an illness, or lowering blood pressure.
I don’t use cupping for just anybody all the time. It requires a bit of robustness—I wouldn’t use cupping on anyone who is frail or deficient. And I stay away from it in times of the year that are especially cold and damp, or really any extreme weather, since cupping can open one up to External Pernicious Influences.
If you’re interested in a treatment, I usually do cupping as part of an acupuncture session. Most people are best served by about 15- 20 minutes of cupping, so usually we do a few minutes of that and then some needles. If you’re interested in scheduling an appointment, click here. I do cupping-only sessions, but usually only for certain clients who need more than the regular 15- 20 minutes.
If you’d like to learn more about cupping, including how to use it as a safe and effective home health treatment, come to my hands-on workshop Wednesday 9/14 from 5:30- 7:30pm!