Have you seen someone leaving a massage therapist’s office with red, circular welts on their skin and wondered what happened in there?
It’s likely you witnessed the aftermath of a cupping treatment session. Cupping is an ancient healing therapy that promotes circulation and relieves muscle tension.
In this article, you’ll learn how cupping treatment works and how to find a qualified practitioner.
Table of contents
- What is cupping treatment?
- The history of cupping therapy
- How does cupping therapy work?
- What is the evidence to support cupping therapy?
- What to expect from cupping therapy
What is cupping treatment?
Cupping therapy is an alternative treatment that suctions bell-shaped cups – made of glass, plastic, or silicone – to different areas of your body to support healing.
Cups are suctioned to the skin for 5-15 minutes, drawing fluid to the surface and increasing blood circulation. Proponents swear it reduces pain, stress, anxiety, and muscle tension.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners also use cupping to stimulate the flow of Qi energy – the body’s life force – and encourage healing. They may target acupoints on the back, abdomen, chest, and thighs.
The history of cupping treatment
Traditional healers in Egypt, Greece, China, Korea, and Tibet have used cupping throughout history to stimulate healing. Records suggest its use dates all the way back to approximately 1550 B.C.
Nowadays, a modern form of cupping is gaining popularity in the West.
How does cupping treatment work?
Cupping draws the skin and muscle upwards, bringing blood and other fluids to the surface. This may improve circulation, boost the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your cells, remove toxins, and enhance the body’s healing properties.
In addition, creating temporary, localised inflammation may stimulate your immune system.
However, according to a 2019 study, no single theory explains how cupping exerts its effects (1).
Different types of cupping treatment
Practitioners generally use four different cupping techniques:
- Classic dry cupping: This is the suction-only technique.
- Wet cupping: It combines suction cupping with medicinal bleeding. A needle lightly punctures the skin before cupping the area for a few minutes, allowing a small amount of blood to collect in the cup. TCM practitioners may use this to remove toxins.
- Massage cupping: The cups are suctioned to the skin and moved around to mimic a deep tissue massage. Applying massage oil allows them to glide across your skin.
- Flash cupping: Repeatedly and quickly suctioning and releasing cups in different areas.
Cupping therapy is used in a range of situations
People commonly seek out cupping therapy for the following reasons, however more research is required to support its efficacy, and you should always speak to your GP or qualified medical practitioner before booking any appointments:
- Muscle aches and pains
- Sports injuries
- Joint pain
- Skin conditions
- Stress and anxiety
- Digestive complaints
- Water retention
- Fertility issues
What is the evidence to support cupping treatment?
Studies have covered the health benefits of cupping and found cupping may improve quality of life and functionality in people with back (2) and neck pain (3). And a 2018 review noted that cupping therapy promotes circulation to the skin, reduces inflammation, increases pain threshold, and even boosts immunity (4).
But we need more high-quality clinical studies before we can draw firm conclusions.
What to expect from cupping treatment
Cupping may sound daunting if you’ve never had a session. Although approach may vary between different forms (e.g., Chinese massage cupping, Western cupping, etc.,)
Here’s what you can expect at an appointment:
The cupping treatment appointment
In your first appointment, the practitioner will take a thorough health history and ask you about your symptoms and health goals.
Before the treatment starts, you’ll remove your clothes (down to your underwear) and lie on a therapy bed under a clean sheet or blanket.
The practitioner will apply cups to different areas of your body — the most common sites are your back, chest, and abdomen. However, it all depends on your symptoms.
Some therapists place herbs or an alcohol-soaked cotton ball in a glass cup to burn until the flame goes out. The warm cup is then placed on the skin. As the smoke cools, it creates a vacuum against the skin. However, many western practitioners use a handheld suction pump to remove air from the cup. Others use silicone cups to form a suction on the skin.
The cups will stay on your body while you rest for 5-20 minutes. At the end of the session, your practitioner will gently release the cups. This feels pleasant and relaxing – like tension leaving the body.
You’ll then have time to get up and get dressed calmly. Finally, the practitioner will discuss your treatment plan with you and answer any questions.
You’re encouraged to drink water and rest after a session to allow your body to detoxify.
How do I find a cupping therapy practitioner, and what qualifications should they have?
Cupping treatment is not regulated, and there are no minimum training requirements. However, cupping practitioners are typically qualified in Chinese medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, physiotherapy, or conventional medicine.
You can check if your practitioner is a member of The British Cupping Society (BCS). This organisation aims to regulate cupping therapy by training and registering cupping practitioners in the UK.
Before booking an appointment, ask the practitioner a few questions:
- What qualifications do they have?
- Are they a member of a professional regulatory body?
- How many years have they been practising?
- What safety and hygiene protocols do they have in place?
How much will it cost?
The cost of cupping therapy varies depending on the length of the treatment and the practitioner’s qualifications.
The average cost is between £30–£90 per session. However, it may be more if your practitioner combines it with other therapies like massage or acupuncture.
How many appointments will I need?
The number of sessions you need is unique to your circumstances. However, cupping treatments build on each other, so it is rarely a once-off treatment.
To give you an idea, a course of treatment for back pain may be 4-6 sessions spaced 3-10 days apart. More sessions may be necessary to see improvement if you have a chronic condition.
Does cupping therapy hurt?
Most people find classic dry cupping a pleasant and relaxing experience. However, some people may experience slight discomfort or pressure at the cupping sites. Wet cupping may cause localised inflammation and sensitivity.
If you notice pain during a session, please notify your practitioner.
What are the risks associated with cupping therapy?
Cupping therapy is safe when performed by an experienced practitioner. Side effects may include discoloured skin, bruising, and circular marks on the skin immediately after treatment. But any skin changes disappear within a few days and are not harmful.
In rare cases, an infection may occur after wet cupping. However, consulting an experienced practitioner who follows strict hygiene protocols reduces this risk.
Resources and more cupping therapy information
- Al-Bedah et al. (2019). The medical perspective of cupping therapy: Effects and mechanisms of action. J Tradit Complement Med.
- Moura et al. (2018). Cupping therapy and chronic back pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. Rev Lat Am Enfermagem
- Kim et al. (2018). Is cupping therapy effective in patients with neck pain? A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open.
- Tamer et al. (2018). Cupping Therapy: An Overview from a Modern Medicine Perspective. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies.
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