What Is Cupping Therapy?

woman lying face down receiving cupping service

What Is Cupping Therapy?

Have you seen images like the one above and thought to yourself, “What exactly is cupping?”

Cupping is an alternative and complimentary treatment used for a variety of conditions.  Cups are applied to the soft-tissue of the body utilizing suction which draws the soft tissue and muscle into the cups. 

What is the history of cupping?

There are many different forms of cupping found throughout the world from traditional Chinese medicine to Mexican curandera.

The ancient Greek philosopher and Father of Western Medicine Hippocrates (c. 400 BC) wrote about the benefits of cupping.  Cupping was even practiced by western medical doctors until the strong separations developed between allopathic and homeopathic medicine in the nineteenth century.   There is a description of cupping  being practiced in a Parish hospital in George Orwell’s essay “How the Poor Die” (1946).

What types of cups are used?

There are a variety of cups used in cupping:

Round glass cups are used in fire-cupping.  Fire (usually a cotton ball soaked in alcohol ablaze on a forceps) is used to draw out the oxygen in the cup and create the suction.   This is the most common technique in traditional Chinese medicine.

Silicone cups fashioned to function as little plungers are most commonly used in cupping practiced by massage therapists and physical therapists as they are safer to use without fire.

Plastic or glass cups with a special opening on the top to attached to a small vacuum or hand pump to create the suction.

Despite the different devices – all cupping functions pretty much the same.
Except:  “Wet cupping” refers to the of cups to draw out blood. After an incision is made in the skin.  I do not recommend this type of cupping!

What are the benefits of cupping?

Very little research has been done on cupping, anecdotal evidence suggests it has many uses and benefits:

  • Help to relieve adhesions in the muscles and soft tissue of the body
  • Help relieve muscle hypertension
  • Help to reduce trigger points
  • Reduce cellulite and improve body contours
  • Assists with digestive problems
  • loosen mucus in the lungs

A study published last year (2017) in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Allied Health Sciences: Official Journal of the Ohio Athletic Trainers Association utilized cupping for the treatment of Vascular Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in a Collegiate Pitcher.  The case study showed positive results and concluded that cupping therapy may be a viable treatment option when seeking to address tight musculature.   Since this is only related to a single case and treatment, more research is needed.

Where can one receive cupping therapy?

Many professionals offer cupping therapy as part of their treatments including massage therapists, physical and occupational therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists.  The basic principles are the same, but the style and philosophy of cupping varies greatly.  Seek recommendations and descriptions to find the cupping therapists best suited for your needs.

Interested in learning more?

IBW will be offering a cupping certification workshop for licensed massage therapists later this summer. Click here to learn more and register.

This blog post has been written by Jeffrey Montoya, Team Leader and Massage Instructor at the Institute of Beauty and Wellness and Aveda Institute Madison.  He is a master cupping practitioner and instructor.  Check out his Instagram for cupping and massage images @MontoyaSensei



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