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Cupping therapy has been used all over the world for thousands of years, especially in Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures. It’s not as popular in the United States, although the treatment is becoming more common.
Cupping, acupuncture, and muscle scraping are forms of traditional Chinese medicine, sometimes referred to as eastern, complementary, or alternative medicine. While many question the health benefits, others stand by it as a complementary therapy for things like chronic pain, diabetes, and headaches.
What is cupping?
Cupping therapy is a treatment technique where cups are placed on the skin to create a suction.
Cups are placed on different parts of the body, depending on the condition or ailment at hand. All different types of cups can be used––glass, metal, bamboo, ceramic, silicone––for suction to create negative pressure in the cups (Furhad, 2021; Aboushanab, 2018).
But how exactly does suctioning your skin with cups help health conditions? Let’s take a look.
How does cupping work?
Scientists aren’t sure of the mechanism behind cupping. Some suggest cupping and acupuncture work the same way, and that applying pressure and encouraging blood flow to areas can heal and alleviate pain (Aboushanab, 2018).
Pain is a common reason people seek out cupping therapy. There are a couple of theories on how it works for pain.
Cupping may affect certain nerve fibers that carry pain signals––as a result, you feel less pain. Or it may decrease inflammation. Cupping sessions can also be relaxing, which increases endorphins and helps with pain relief (Aboushanab, 2018).
Another theory suggests that a method called wet cupping acts like an artificial kidney. Your kidneys are your body’s filtration system and are responsible for regulating water and salt levels in your blood. During wet cupping, the suction mimics a similar filtration process where the negative pressure in the cup draws toxins up and out (Furhad, 2021; Ogobuiro, 2021).
What is cupping used for?
Cupping therapy is used for a variety of conditions. Here are some popular ones cupping is shown to have benefits for (Furhad, 2021):
- Pain including chronic pain, neck pain, knee pain, and low back pain
- High blood pressure
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Heart disease
- Skin conditions
- Mental health issues
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Types of cupping
There are many techniques and categories of cupping. A significant differentiation is dry and wet cupping. Wet cupping involves bloodletting, where dry cupping does not (Aboushanab, 2018).
During wet cupping, minor cuts are made on the skin. This allows blood to fill the cup during the suction process. There are different types of wet cupping, depending on how the incision is made. Examples include traditional wet cupping and Al-hijamah (Furhad, 2021).
Other types of cupping include flash, massage, fire, manual suction, and automatic suction. You can also alter suction power within the cup to make it light, medium, or strong cupping (Aboushanab, 2018).
While cupping is generally well-tolerated, it’s a good idea to have it done by a professional trained in this area.
Benefits of cupping
There’s not a lot of definitive research that tells us all the effects of cupping, but here are some of the potential benefits reported (Al-Bedah, 2018):
- Increases natural opioids for pain relief
- Improves blood flow
- Removes bodily waste and toxins
- Lowers cholesterol
- Reduces blood sugar in people with diabetes
- Controls high blood pressure
- Boosts the immune system
- Produces anti-inflammatory effects
More studies are needed to determine the true effectiveness of cupping.
Side effects and risks
The first time you hear about it cupping might sound scary, but it’s generally safe. Most people won’t experience severe side effects.
At the cupping site you can expect redness, bruising, soreness, and skin discoloration from broken blood vessels just under the skin. Some people also experience headaches, dizziness, fainting, tiredness, nausea, and insomnia.
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Lastly, certain side effects are at higher risk with specific cupping methods, such as burns (when fire is used). Some potential adverse reactions include scarring, anemia (low red blood cells), skin infections, and blisters (Furhad, 2021).
Who shouldn’t do cupping?
Even if cupping therapy is considered safe, it’s not for everyone.
Cupping therapy should be avoided for people with kidney, liver, or heart failure, as well as those with a pacemaker. It also can’t be used if you have a bleeding condition like hemophilia or if you’re taking a blood thinner. Cupping should not be performed on an actual blood clot (Aboushanab, 2018).
This technique also isn’t recommended for babies, elderly individuals, and pregnant people at this time (Furhad, 2021).
- 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. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29436369/
- Al-Bedah, A., Elsubai, I. S., Qureshi, N. A., Aboushanab, T. S., Ali, G., El-Olemy, A. T., Khalil, A., Khalil, M., & Alqaed, M. S. (2018). The medical perspective of cupping therapy: Effects and mechanisms of action. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 9(2), 90–97. doi: 10.1016/j.jtcme.2018.03.003. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30963043/
- Furhad, S., & Bokhari, A. A. (2021). Cupping Therapy. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved September 23, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30855841/
- Ogobuiro, I., & Tuma, F. (2021). Physiology, Renal. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. Retrieved September 23, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30855923/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.