What is Cupping?

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
November 9, 2022

What is Cupping?

By Massage Today, Editorial Staff
November 9, 2022

For many, their first introduction to cupping came in 2016 when Michael Phelps showed up at the Rio Summer Olympics with circular marks along his shoulders and back. Considering Phelps was the most recognized Olympian of all time, these marks quickly became a talking point and gave cupping a moment in the sun.

But cupping has been around for longer than 2016—a lot longer. Cupping dates back to circa 1500 BC when the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical papyrus of herbal knowledge, made note of the use of cups to help cure various ailments, from fever to pain.

The Chinese are often credited with perfecting cupping with writings on the subject dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), but many Middle Eastern cultures have also documented their use of cupping.

All this is to say that Michael Phelps may have brought cupping to center stage for many people at the 2016 Olympics, but the history of the practice is long.

What is Cupping and How is Cupping Performed?

Cupping involves the placement of cups directly on the skin to create suction. “I think everyone who practices cupping would agree that the simplest definition is the therapeutic application of a vacuum or suction against the skin,” says Paul Kohlmeier, a registered massage therapist and the owner and course creator for Cupping Canada Inc. and Cupping USA.

See Also: What is Aromatherapy?

Sonia Morton, ICTA Cupping therapist and Certified Cupping Educator, defines cupping similarly. “Cupping is an ancient form of therapy where cups are placed on the skin to draw up tissue to decompress muscles and fascia, move lymph, promote blood flow, and enhance the body’s own healing process.” Cupping is frequently used in massage therapy and is often done in tandem with a variety of massage techniques. When receiving cupping therapy, a massage therapist will create a vacuum inside each cup, adhering the cup to the skin. The cups will be left on the skin for a specified period of time, during which the skin will begin to be pulled up into the cup. This suction is what sometimes causes the circular marks you see on people’s skin. These marks usually go away on their own after a week or two. This type of cupping is known as dry cupping.

Many providers today use silicone or polycarbonate/plastic cups, but according to Cleveland Clinic, cups may also be made from glass, bamboo, ceramic, metal, and silicone.

Some cups have one way valves in them that can be connected to hand pumps or electric pumps that are used to pull out air from the cup. “These cups have gotten quite advanced, as there are some that are computer-controlled, measuring the amount of vacuum created,” Kohlmeier says.

Who Can Benefit From Cupping and What Are the Benefits?

Cupping may provide benefits for clients experiencing pain, muscular tightness, arthritis, and entrapment syndromes.

“There is some evidence that it will improve lymphatic drainage if applied properly,” Kohlmeier adds.

Purported benefits include:

  • Pain relief, including back, neck, and knee
  • Increased range of motion
  • Headache relief
  • Improved circulation

"When cupping is done properly by trained professionals, clients can expect to begin feeling an immediate sense of relief and change within the tissue,” says Morton. “The sensation can be as light as lymphatic drainage or intense, similar to deep tissue massage.”

Additionally, multiple cups can be used to effect change such as structural shifts, decreased pain and hypertonicity, increased lymphatic movement, and the break up and discharge of stagnation, according to Morton.

See Also: What is Deep Tissue Massage?

“As a traditional massage therapist, I could only be in two locations at one time. As a cupping therapist, I am able to be in multiple areas at one time, it’s like having 30 hands working together,” Morton says. “I am able to connect pain patterns creating longer lasting and many times permanent results.”

What Are the Risks of Cupping?

Cupping is considered to be relatively safe, though there are some potential risks, including:

  • Fainting
  • Vomiting
  • Blistering
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Skin discoloration
  • Infection (especially with wet cupping)

These risks have all been documented but are rarely seen in practice as long as proper techniques are used, according to Kohlmeier. In addition to the risks, cupping therapy is not recommended for individuals with bleeding disorders, or anyone who regularly takes medicine like aspirin or ibuprofen, or individuals with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Additionally, pregnant clients should be evaluated on a case by case basis.

“Cupping should not be done with clients with cancer, who are in organ failure, or who have a pacemaker,” Kohlmeier adds. “Caution should be taken with clients with infections, people who use anticoagulants, have severe chronic disease, or are currently experiencing edema or swelling, have broken skin, or are anemic.”