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Maybe you recall seeing big, round purple bruises on Michael Phelps at the last Olympics. Perhaps you saw Gwenyth Paltrow or Jennifer Aniston with those same marks on the red carpet and wondered what they were. Those marks were a result of cupping therapy. Cupping therapy is an ancient healing technique that has many health benefits for the immune system, cardiovascular health, and pain management. Traditional Chinese Medicine theorizes that cupping can help warm the channels of the body to eliminate cold, promote qi and blood circulation, accelerate healing, relieve swelling, adjust body temperature, and help with stroke rehabilitation, fibromyalgia, hypertension, and herpes zoster. Most often it is used for musculoskeletal pain such as chronic shoulder pain, neck pain, and low back pain (Chi, et. al., 2016). Some of the other reported benefits include relief from headache, migraine, brachialgia, knee pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and diabetes mellitus (Aboushanab, et. al., 2017).
The use of cupping as medicine has been used for thousands of years by many cultures around the globe. One of the first citations of cupping found in written text is of a papyrus from Ancient Egypt from around 1550 B.C. In addition, mention of cupping has also been found in writings by Hippocrates, a Greek physician who is known as the the father of modern medicine. He compiled many descriptions of cupping technique and applications. Cupping has also been used by ancient Arabic physicians, such as Ibn Sina (AD 980-1037), Al-Zahrawi (AD 936-1036), and Abu Bakr Al-Razi (AD 854-925) (Aboushanab, et. al., 2017). Also, I have had Mexican and Italian patients tell me that their grandmothers used to do cupping when they would catch a cold when they were younger. The most well known culture to use cupping therapy in ancient and modern times is the Chinese. In ancient times the Chinese referred to cupping as “horn therapy” because they would use a hollowed out buffalo horn as the “cup” versus a glass cup which is used today.
Part of why cupping might be so prevalent in many cultures throughout history around the world is because it is so easy to perform. Chinese medical texts define cupping as the use of a glass, plastic, or bamboo cup to create a suction on the skin that creates local congestion or capillary rupture through negative pressure the result of which is bruising. This method of cupping is often referred to as dry cupping. There are several ways to create a suction. One is by inserting ignited material in a glass jar and then quickly placing the jar on the skin. Another way is to use a special device that sucks the air out of a particular type of plastic cup.
Most people use cupping to help relieve pain and pain is probably the most common reason why people seek alternative forms of medicine such as acupuncture in the United States. Common types of pain that people come to acupuncture for are neck pain, shoulder pain and low back pain. Cupping specifically works through the suction action of the cups pulling the blood to the surface of the skin. When the cup is placed in an area of pain it has the action of pulling blood through the muscles and tissues of this area. A lot of pain is caused or persists because blood is not circulating properly through certain areas of the body, depriving that area of nutrients and oxygen that the cells need. The cell responds with feelings of pain. By suctioning blood to this area we are bringing oxygen and nutrients to the cells. Furthermore, the cup squeezes the area of pain, in a similar way to a massage in order to loosen up the muscles, which also helps to relieve the pain.
How can cupping help my immune system? Though studies on the mechanism of cupping are sparse, many studies have shown that the skin in the area that is cupped is a slightly higher temperature than the skin around it. The temperature of the skin at the cup site increases because blood flow is increased to the cupped region and the warmth is a result of vasodilation (Chi, et. al., 2016). Western scientists hypothesize that cupping can help modulate the cellular immune system by changing the microenvironment of the skin, which creates biological signals that activate the neuroendocrine immune system (Aboushanab, et. al., 2017).
Similarly, Traditional Chinese medical theory sees the sickness as a pathogen which penetrates the exterior layers of the body first in the skin, then the muscle, then deeper to the organs. By doing cupping during the initial stages of the cold one is releasing the pathogen from the skin and muscle layer before it can penetrate deeper to the organs. When I first learned Traditional Chinese Medicine I was amazed to learn how accurate the observation of how a pathogen travels through the body. In my own experience, when I catch a cold, one of the first symptoms of it hitting the muscle layer--my neck tightens up, and I might get a headache. One of the first things I do when I catch a cold or when someone in my family catches a cold is to do cupping in order to release the pathogen from the skin and muscle layer, which will hopefully stop the cold from progressing.
Cupping can also help cardiovascular health and specifically help to regulate blood pressure. One study in particular showed a decrease in systolic blood pressure from 117.7 +/- 2.9 mmHg to 111.8 +/- 2.3 mmHg, in the cupping group, and concluded that “cupping appears to have some influence on SBP (Chi, et. al., 2016)” and postulated that “The CT therapeutic method can cause vasodilation and stimulate blood circulation to increase metabolism and accelerate the elimination of waste and toxins from the body. This effect acts to improve physical function and affect BP (Chi, et. al., 2016).” More studies definitely need to be done, but from my observation I believe that cupping is able to have an effect on the cardiovascular system because it causes vasodilation of vessels and temporarily disrupts the flow of blood and this perhaps “resets” how the blood flows to one that is less constricted and thereby lowering blood pressure.
Although cupping is very safe and easy to perform there are some cautions and contraindications. Cupping should not be performed on edema, skin ulcers, over large vessels (such as the carotid artery), or on the abdomen or sacral area of pregnant women. Cupping should also not be performed on people with high fever, or people experiencing convulsions (from high fever). In addition, cupping is contraindicated for people who bleed easily (hemophiliacs), or with people who are taking anticoagulant/blood thinning medication (Warfarin) (Cheng, 1987). Also, cupping is should not be done on the eyes, over skin lesions, for varicose veins, body orifices, bone fractures, and deep vein thrombosis (Aboushanab, et. al., 2017).
Cupping is an easy, safe therapy that can be helpful in pain managements, cardiovascular health, and strengthening the immune system. Cupping can also be used more specifically for stroke rehabilitation, fibromyalgia, hypertension, herpes zoster, musculoskeletal pain, including chronic shoulder pain, neck pain, and low back pain (Chi, et. al., 2016). Some of the other reported benefits include headache, migraine, facial paralysis, brachialgia, knee pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and diabetes mellitus. At Open Mind Modalities we generally provide cupping as part of our standard care for every patient, unless contraindicated. Please talk to one of our practitioners today if you have more questions.
Aboushanab, T. S., & Alsanad, S. (2018). Cupping Therapy: An Overview from a Modern Medicine Perspective. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, 11(3), 83-87. doi:10.1016/j.jams.2018.02.001
Cheng, X., & Deng, L. (1987). Chinese acupuncture and moxibustion. Beijing: Foreign Language Press.
Chi, L., Lin, L., Chen, C., Wang, S., Lai, H., & Peng, T. (2016). The Effectiveness of Cupping Therapy on Relieving Chronic Neck and Shoulder Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2016, 1-7. doi:10.1155/2016/7358918
Kim, J.-I., Lee, M. S., Lee, D.-H., Boddy, K., & Ernst, E. (2011). Cupping for Treating Pain: A Systematic Review. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine?: eCAM, 2011, 467014. http://doi.org/10.1093/ecam/nep035