Cupping is offered at my acupuncture offices in Brooklyn (Gowanus, Park Slope) + Union Square
Cupping therapy is an integral part of Chinese Medicine. At my offices in Brooklyn (serving Gowanus, Park Slope, and Greenpoint) and Manhattan (Union Square), I see patients who are dealing with chronic pain (back pain, neck and shoulder pain, knee pain, hip pain, and ankle pain), digestive issues (IBS, colitis), infertility, stress, insomnia, PMS, women's health, and autoimmune conditions (Lyme, Hashimoto's, thyroid conditions, and many more).
Ever since Michael Phelps’ polka-dotted back drew a lot of media attention at the Olympics, there's been quite an uptake in questions about cupping in my email inbox. You all want to know: “does it hurt?”, “what’s it doing, really?”, and, my personal favorite, “why the hell would anyone be willing to do that?”. Fair enough.
As a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, I use cupping all the time to treat my patients, and myself. But to the public, in the West, cupping is still relatively unknown. It is often misunderstood and seen as kind of -- or, depending on the circles you run in, very -- weird. Here’s a quick rundown of the basics.
WhERE DOES IT COME FROM?
Cupping has been in continuous use around the world for a long, long time. In ancient China, cattle horns and sections of bamboo were heated to expel the air and create suction on the skin, as part of treatment for draining things like boils and snakebites, and for joint pain.
The oldest written record of the practice in China was found in a tomb from the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD); that’s practically modern, though, compared to the Ebers papyrus, dating from 1550 BC Egypt, which describes the benefits of cupping.
While cupping was and continues to be widespread in Asia, it was also part of traditional medical practices throughout the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, and North Africa. All around the world, it was seen as a cure-all and was commonly used to treat pain, digestive problems, inflammation, fevers, menstrual problems, and stagnation in general. Even as recently as the mid-1800s, cupping was in favor and used in the West.
What DOES IT Help with?
These days, cupping is practiced primarily by trained practitioners (such as licensed acupuncturists) who have given up the historical use of cattle horns in favor of round suction cups made of glass or plastic. As in ancient times, it continues to have a wide range of applications, but recent clinical research has demonstrated it to be effective for the following:
- Chronic low back pain
- Many different pain conditions: think joint pain, muscle pain, headaches, menstrual pain, and digestive pain
- Herpes zoster, better known as shingles
- Breathing, whether alleviating asthma, cough, or the onset of a common cold
- Fever reduction
- Decreasing oxidative stress, by removing oxidants from the body: this is why athletes are fans, as it speeds recovery from injury and training
Recent modern research aside, there are over 2,000 years of written case studies about the clinical applications of cupping, which inform how contemporary practitioners use the therapy. For example, in addition to being a treatment in itself, cupping is a valuable diagnostic tool: not all cupping marks are created equal, and the color and intensity of the marks that appear actually tell me a lot of detailed information about your injury and/or underlying health issues.
I may also decline to use cupping as part of your treatment, as it is not appropriate for everyone. The very weak or immune-compromised are not good candidates for this therapy, nor is anyone with any kind of active dermatological condition, skin injury, or open wound.
Does it hurt?
First of all, cupping does not hurt! The suction creates a unique sensation, often compared to a deep massage, which most patients enjoy and relax into.
You may also be surprised to learn that the marks left are not bruises. Bruises are caused by trauma and tearing of capillaries, the tiny blood vessels under our skin, which are usually then painful or tender to touch as they heal.
On the other hand, cupping marks are the result of lactic acid, toxins, dead red blood cells, and lymph being drawn out of stuck places; these substances are then removed through the increased microcirculation of fresh blood and lymph stimulated by the cupping. Cupping marks are almost never tender to touch and, visually, look very different from bruises as they heal and clear.
what can i expect at the session and beyond?
I may use either glass cups (known as fire cups) or plastic suction cups. Depending on your health issue, I may leave the cups in place (stationary cupping), move the cups around (sliding cupping), or apply and remove the cups in quick succession a number of times (flash cupping).
After your session, the marks left by the cups (if any!) may take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks to completely clear. Plan to keep the marks covered under clothes or a scarf, drink plenty of water, and treat yourself well to support the detoxification process that’s underway.