What Is Cupping Therapy? What To Expect, Benefits + Drawbacks

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There is any number of healing modalities that we can take advantage of these days. 

For example, there are medications, red light therapy, and physical therapy exercises and modalities depending on your pain and problem. Or you might try Chinese herbs or acupuncture if you like to treat your body with Eastern medicine techniques.

Another popular and ancient healing practice is cupping therapy. But what is cupping and what does cupping do?

Cupping therapy has been used for thousands of years to alleviate pain and tension associated with headaches, arthritis, back spasms, neck pain, and more.

If you’ve never heard of cupping therapy or have been interested in trying it to soothe whatever pain is ailing you, keep reading to learn all about what to expect from cupping therapy.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Cupping Therapy?
  • What to Expect Before and After Cupping Therapy (and During!)
  • Does Cupping Therapy Work? Benefits of Cupping Therapy Explained
  • What to Expect After Cupping and the Risks of Cupping Therapy

Let’s get started! 

A person getting cupping therapy.

What Is Cupping Therapy?

So, what is cupping therapy? Cupping therapy is a traditional healing technique that has been practiced for thousands of years in Chinese and Middle Eastern medicine. In fact, evidence suggests that cupping dates back to 1550 BC.

Cupping involves strategically placing glass, plastic, or silicone cups on certain areas of the body, namely the back, legs, arms, and abdomen, and applying heat or suction to create a sub-atmospheric pressure inside the cup to pull upwards on the skin with an end result to relieve pain. 

For example, according to the Cleveland Clinic, cupping therapy may be used to treat the pain and discomfort associated with any number of conditions, including the following:

  • Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis 
  • Fibromyalgia 
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome 
  • Asthma or other respiratory issues
  • Headaches or migraines 
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
A person getting cupping therapy.

What to Expect Before and After Cupping Therapy (and During!)

Now onto the number one question on everyone’s mind: Does cupping hurt? 

Let’s set the scene for what to expect during cupping therapy and what to expect after cupping therapy.

Cupping therapy is typically provided by acupuncturists or chiropractors, but massage therapists, physical therapists, and integrative medicine doctors may also offer cupping sessions.

During a cupping treatment, a practitioner places special suction cups on various sites along your body, such as your back, legs, stomach, buttocks, and arms.

Usually, a cupping treatment uses four, six, or ten cups, though other variations exist.

The cups are usually made from glass or plastic but may also be composed of bamboo, silicone, ceramic, or metal.

A close-up of what cupping therapy looks like on the back.

There are a couple of different ways to perform cupping therapy.

First, the treatment area of the skin is disinfected.

Then, cups (usually multiple cups are used) are positioned on your body in certain areas of pain or in areas thought to be channels of pain relief.

In most cases, the cups are left in place for several minutes (5-10 minutes in most cases), although the practitioner may move them around a little in their general area to help stretch the suctioned skin and massage the tissue.

As the cups sit on the skin, action suction may be used to augment the suction provided by the cup, depending on the type of cupping therapy you’re getting and your practitioner’s preferences.

Then, the cups are replaced, and the new cups are left in place for another 3-5 minutes while suction is applied.

Finally, the treatment area is cleaned.

Some of the most common cupping methods include the following:

A therapist doing cupping therapy on someone.

Dry Cupping

Dry cupping therapy involves heating the inside of each cup before placing it on the skin.

Usually, the cup is heated by an alcohol-soaked cotton ball that is ignited with a match or lighter.

The flaming cotton causes heat, which forces the oxygen out of the cup. This creates a vacuum that can then suction the skin.

Additional suction may be added at the top of the cup using a suction device to intensify the force pulling upward on the skin.

Wet Cupping

With wet cupping techniques, the practitioner will use a sterilized needle to lightly puncture your skin before cupping.

The needle may also be used again after cupping therapy.

The belief is that toxins are better able to exit through these puncture wounds.

A therapist doing cupping therapy on someone.

Massage Cupping

Also called dynamic cupping, gliding cupping, or moving cupping, massage cupping involves gently moving the cups with weak suction after they are applied to the skin to enhance circulation.

There are other specialized cupping therapy techniques like flash cupping, needle cupping, herbal cupping, laser cupping, magnetic cupping, and electrical stimulation cupping, though these techniques are less common, especially if you’re getting a basic cupping treatment at most standard facilities.

Does Cupping Therapy Work? Benefits of Cupping Therapy Explained

So, how does cupping therapy work? And, more importantly, does cupping therapy work?

There isn’t a ton of scientific evidence pointing to the benefits of cupping therapy, though it is still a heavily utilized practice and has been for thousands of years.

The limited studies on the efficacy of cupping therapy have mostly shown quite favorable results.

For example, evidence suggests that cupping can be an effective therapy for low-back pain and chronic generalized back pain, and neck pain.

Additionally, cupping can reduce pain, increase range of motion, and improve function in athletes.

Studies also show that the pain-relieving benefits of cupping can extend to diseases like herpes and spondylothesis. 

A therapist doing cupping therapy on someone letting in more suction to the cups.

Here’s what’s happening during a cupping therapy treatment:

The suction cups create a vacuum force that pulls your skin upward into the cups, creating some space or a gap between the skin and the other underlying tissues like fascia and muscle.

The suction force also draws blood and lymph flow to the area, increasing circulation and bringing oxygen, nutrients, and immune-fighting white blood cells to the site where the cup has been placed.

Additionally, the suction cup actually creates microscopic damage to the small capillaries (tiny blood vessels) under the skin.

This, in turn, triggers the body to initiate the healing response, as these “damaged areas” are treated as sites of injuries.

Therefore, the immune system responds via the natural healing cascade of events by shuttling more blood and resources to the area.

A therapist doing cupping therapy on someone letting in more suction to the cups with a tool.

Furthermore, cupping has been shown to increase the production of Heme Oxygenase-1 (HO-1), a compound that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on the body.

Some proponents of cupping also suggest that cupping may help release toxins through the pores and can increase the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and natural opioids, which reduce the perception of pain.

In addition to improving tissue blood flow, there are other potential theories as to how cupping therapy works, such as the gate theory of pain.

Essentially, skin suction caused by the cup acts as a counter-irritant and distracts the brain from the presenting pain that you are trying to treat. 

The discomfort sensation of the cup pulling on your skin reaches the brain faster than the other pain signals from whatever injury or issue is ailing you, and therefore that pain is less bothersome.

A therapist doing cupping therapy on someone letting in more suction to the cups.

What to Expect After Cupping and the Risks of Cupping Therapy

Many people are concerned about having pain after cupping therapy.

Unfortunately, it’s important to be aware that it is normal to experience some amount of bruising and pain after cupping therapy.

The suction force during cupping intentionally damages some of the little capillaries and small blood vessels under the skin.

When these blood vessels break, the blood leaks out into the surrounding tissue and pools under the skin, resulting in a bruise (hematoma).

It’s normal for bruises from cupping to last 1-2 weeks after treatment.

A person placing cups on a person's back.

The pain usually dissipates as soon as the cups are removed from your skin and continues to fade over the next few hours.

Pressing on some of the areas that bruise can cause discomfort, however.

Additionally, potentially negative side effects of cupping can include fatigue, headaches, burning (if heated cups are used), bruising, muscle soreness, nausea, and skin infections if needles were used in the treatment.

Due to the relative lack of scientific research and established protocols, cupping therapy may be contraindicated for pregnant women; people with blood clotting disorders like hemophilia or deep vein thrombosis, people with a history of stroke or seizures, and people with active or open wounds or skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

With that said, most healthcare professionals say that cupping is a low-risk therapy that should be safe for most people and can be an effective, drug-free way to manage and reduce pain.

As mentioned, there are a great variety of different physical therapy practices, whether they be for joint pain, muscle soreness, or any number of other ailments.

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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