Written by Katherine Nicholls

Katherine Nicholls

Therapy Directory Content Team

Last updated on 25th August, 2015

Cupping therapy is a complementary therapy that involves placing cups on the skin in a way that creates suction. This gentle pressure is believed to help mobilise blood flow and free up energy blockages to promote natural healing.

The cups themselves can be made from various materials, including glass and bamboo. Dating back to ancient cultures, the therapy follows the lines of the meridians (energy channels referred to in traditional Chinese medicine).

On this page, we will explain cupping therapy in more detail including the different types and cupping benefits. We will describe what treatment feels like and answer the question on everyone's lips... does it hurt?

An explanation of cupping therapy

The earliest record of cupping therapy was in the Ebers Papyrus - one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world. The textbook describes how ancient Egyptians used the therapy in 1550 BC.

The therapy is more commonly associated with ancient Chinese culture however, and is considered a form of traditional Chinese medicine. The term cupping is used to describe a technique where small glass/bamboo cups are used as suction devices on the skin.

There are different ways to create this suction. The most common method involves using heat. The therapist may apply rubbing alcohol to the bottom of the cup, light it and then apply the heated cup directly on the skin.

This suction causes the skin and superficial muscle to gently lift up into the cup. In this way, the therapy can be considered as an inversion of massage. Instead of applying a pressure downward on the muscles, cupping uses pressure upwards to lift the muscles. For many, this provides a relaxing sensation.

The aim of applying this pressure is to loosen and relax muscles, encourage blood flow, release toxins and relax the nervous system. Cupping therapy has many uses, but it is most commonly used for the following concerns:

  • back and neck pain
  • migraines
  • fatigue
  • anxiety
  • skin problems
  • fertility
  • high blood pressure
  • respiratory problems.

(As cupping is a complementary therapy, it is advised that you use it alongside any medical treatment you are receiving.)

What happens during a cupping therapy session?

To begin you will have a consultation with your therapist. This is when you discuss the concerns you would like to address with the treatment. It is helpful at this stage to inform your therapist of any other treatments you are receiving and any health conditions that may make you unsuitable for this therapy.

The therapist will then be able to assess where best to place the cups. The back is the most commonly used area. This is because it has five meridian lines which are optimal for cup placement. Other areas of the body can be used too, fleshy areas are preferred as they lend themselves well to suction.

Depending on the nature of the condition you're seeking help for, your therapist will leave the cups in place from five to 10 minutes. Usually several cups are placed at the same time. Some therapists may also apply medicated oils or herbal infusions to the skin, allowing the cups to be moved once applied.

Some therapists may also offer acupuncture. Often the two therapies are used within the same session. If this is the case, you can choose whether or not you would like just cupping, or both cupping and acupuncture in the same session.

Does it hurt?

Cupping therapy causes mild swelling and bruising on the skin so many people assume it must be painful. This shouldn't be the case however. The marks, or 'bruises' appear because the suction causes the blood vessels on the surface of the skin to expand. The resulting marks are unlike bruises caused by blunt trauma so they shouldn't hurt. The marks can last anywhere between a day and two weeks, but usually they last a couple of days.

You may feel a tight pulling sensation as the cups are applied, but again there shouldn't be any pain. If you are feeling pain, be sure to tell your therapist so they can adjust their technique. If your skin is broken or inflamed, the therapy should be avoided as this may cause pain.

If you're worried about the sensation, explain this to your therapist. Many therapists will use a very gentle pressure during your first session and gradually increase in intensity as you get used to the feeling.

Types of cupping

There are different types of cupping you can try, each with there own benefits. The type you will have will depend on your personal circumstances and the preferences of your therapist. Different types include the following:

Wet cupping

The term wet cupping is used when the therapist makes a small incision on the skin after the cup has been removed. The cup is then applied again to draw out a small quantity of blood. After the procedure, the therapist will use an antibiotic ointment and dressing to prevent infection.

It is believed that this method helps to remove toxins from the body to promote natural healing.  

Dry cupping

Dry cupping (also known as 'air cupping') doesn't use heat to create suction. Instead, it uses a specially designed pump that is attached to the end of the jar. The pump is used to create a vacuum. Some practitioners prefer this method as it gives them more control over the amount of suction.

Because this method doesn't use heat to create suction, there is also no risk of accidentally burning the skin.

Fixed cupping

This just means that the cups stay in place during the treatment. The amount of time they're left for will depend on the nature of your concern, but they are usually left between five and 10 minutes.

Moving cupping/gliding cupping

As its name would suggest, moving cupping is when the cups are moved during the treatment. To enable this to happen, your therapist will use an oil to lubricate the skin. Often these oils will be infused with essential oils and herbs. This helps the cups move more easily and makes for a more pleasurable sensation.

Cupping benefits

There are many cupping benefits, ranging from relaxation and improved well-being to pain relief. The skin is the body's largest organ, reflecting imbalances. It stands to reason therefore that therapies that target the skin reap great rewards.

The following list of cupping benefits is not exhaustive, but highlights how the therapy can affect you both physically and mentally.

Improved flow of energy

In traditional Chinese medicine the flow of energy (or qi) is very important. When blockages occur, it is believed that illness and pain follow. This is why many techniques used in Chinese medicine focus on freeing up energy.

The meridian system is a network of energy channels, each linking to various body parts. Cupping therapy works within this system, with many therapists placing cups on meridian points. Therapists believe by encouraging a good flow of qi, the body becomes more able to heal itself naturally.  

Encourages detoxification

The body naturally flushes out toxins we accumulate. This normally happens through the lymph fluids. Cupping is thought to aid this process as it stimulates blood and lymph flow. Increasing the supply of healthy, oxygenated blood to muscles and skin brings nourishment and allows toxins to be carried away by the lymph.

Helps to relieve pain

As this therapy has a similar effect on the muscles as a massage does, it can be useful for relieving muscular pain. This is because it loosens tissues and promotes healing. For those who suffer from chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, cupping therapy can be especially beneficial when used alongside medication and physical therapy.

Eases tense muscles

Tense muscles can have a multitude of side effects. These can range from headaches and stress to neck and back pain. Cupping works to soften underlying muscle tissues and break up knotted areas. This leads to looser and more flexible muscles.

When your body is free from tension, you may find it easier for your mind to follow suit.

Promotes relaxation

One of the best-known cupping benefits is relaxation. The sensation is akin to a massage (especially in moving cupping), making it pleasurable and incredibly relaxing. Many people report a warm tingling sensation that lasts long after the treatment ends.

The therapy also has a sedating effect on the nervous system. This makes it useful when addressing conditions such as high blood pressure, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia and tension headaches.

Other uses

Some therapists use the therapy in a more cosmetic nature. For example, many say one of the key cupping benefits is its ability to reduce cellulite. The theory behind this is that the suction provides drainage and boosts circulation, which loosens adhesions or 'dimples'.  

Who can have it?

When carried out by a qualified professional, cupping therapy should carry little to no risk. However, it is advised that the following groups of people avoid it:

  • those who bleed easily and/or cannot stop bleeding
  • pregnant women
  • menstruating women
  • those with metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread from one part of the body to another)
  • those with muscle spasms or bone fractures.

In addition to this, the therapy should not be carried out on sites of the body that have the following:

  • an ulcer
  • an artery
  • deep vein thrombosis
  • a pulse that can be felt.

You are advised to consult your doctor before trying any new complementary therapy. They will be able to advise you on which therapies are suitable (or unsuitable) for you. You should also tell your therapist if you are concerned about any of the above.

As cupping therapy can involve hot surfaces, skin manipulation and (in wet cupping) incisions, you should always check your therapist has had the appropriate level of training. You may wish to see their qualifications and/or their registration with a professional body for peace of mind.

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