The Origins of Cupping
Is cupping dangerous, or what exactly is cupping? This article will answer all your questions about this alternative form of therapy. Cupping (拔罐), a form of alternative medicine, is an ancient practice used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that can be traced back to the early Han Dynasty in China. However, its use has also been documented in early Egyptian practices and it has also been popular in US, UK, Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years.
In recent years, more and more people worldwide have been increasing drawn to this alternative therapy, due to the publicity by celebrities, athletes and influencers. Michael Phelps, one of the most famous male swimmers in Olympic history, former Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin and gymnast Alex Naddour have all used cupping as a form of therapy and to relieve tension in their muscles.
What Is Cupping?
This alternative therapy involves the application of suction to various meridian points on the body using special cups such as a glass cup, ceramic, metal, silicone or plastic cups and bamboo containers.
The Process of Cupping
There are different ways of performing cupping, and the steps differ slightly depending on the therapist or the method he or she chooses. In general, there are two main types of cupping therapy that health care providers will perform on your body.
Traditionally, for dry cupping, the Chinese doctor, acupuncturist or therapist will warm the inside of special cups with a cotton ball that is soaked in alcohol that has been set on fire. The therapist will then apply the cups on your skin where the meridian points are to create suction. The heat sucks the oxygen out of the cups, creating a vacuum. The vacuum or suction force inside the cups then pulls the skin upwards, drawing blood into the treatment area and breaking tiny blood vessels (capillaries) under the skin. This process improves blood flow and stimulates the natural healing process. The cups are left on your body for between 10 to 30 minutes and then removed. One technique that the therapist might do is to move the cups along meridians of the body to cover a bigger area quickly.
For wet cupping, besides the above steps, the therapist will leave each cup in place for between 3 to 5 minutes. He will then remove the cup and use a small scalpel or needle to puncture your skin lightly before and sometimes, after cupping, the latter of which is to draw out a small quantity of blood. The therapist will then apply an ointment over your skin and bandage it to prevent infection. Your skin should heal within 7 to 10 days.
Although there are no scientific results to prove that this is true, it is believed that through wet cupping, toxins and harmful substances will leave the body through these punctured holes in your skin during the whole process, promoting healing.
Needle Cupping or Acupuncture Cupping
The healing effects of cupping can also be improved when the therapist leaves an acupuncture needle in the meridian point or acupoint during cupping, as is the case with needle cupping or what we called acupuncture cupping.
In recent years, there evolved a more modern version of cupping, where the therapist uses a rubber pump instead of fire to create the vacuum inside the cups. Most therapists use silicone cups for this process.
There are also subsets of cupping like facial cupping, sports cupping, orthopedic cupping and aquatic cupping. It may also involve the use of moxibustion, or the burning of mugwort leaves, magnets, laser therapy, electrical stimulation, water and herbs.
What Is Cupping Used For?
In general, the purpose of cupping is to dispel stagnation in your body (stagnant blood and lymph) and rejuvenate the meridians, or energy pathways in the body, improve the circulation of ‘Qi’, or ‘vital energy’ and hence help your body to achieve a sense of balance and harmony.
However, although cupping therapy is suitable for most people, those who are physically weak or have certain existing medical conditions such as high blood pressure and cholesterol or diabetes should avoid cupping. Pregnant women and those with skin ulcers or wounds should also refrain from cupping.
Cupping is used to treat a variety of conditions in the body. Most people use cupping therapy to help them cope with pain and muscle aches in the body and reduce inflammation, such as arthritis, rheumatism, cervical spondylosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, neck pain, knee pain or shoulder pain, though it has also been used for breathing problems such as asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, flu or cold, weight management or as a form of massage therapy to create a sense of relaxation and well-being.
How Will You Feel After Cupping?
The person being cupped will usually experience a sense of tightness and warmth on the parts where the therapist has placed the cups. This kind of sensation means that his ‘Qi’, the central underlying principle in Chinese traditional medicine, has been moved into the treated area. After half an hour, the cups can be removed, and the patient will experience less pain and more relaxed. Some theorists think that cupping actually clears your body of toxins.
Depending on your therapist or Chinese doctor, follow-up cupping treatments may be recommended. The frequency of these subsequent treatments will depend on your health and how your body responds in general to the initial treatment.
Is Cupping Dangerous?
Is cupping dangerous? Well, most experts agree that cupping is safe. But indeed, there is no concrete scientific or medical evidence on the effectiveness of cupping, or whether it provides any of the health benefits stated above. One study concluded that they do not explicitly recommend cupping or is against it for athletes and future studies are needed while the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) would not directly address the issue, saying that existing research to support cupping are mostly of low quality.
In fact, the NCCIH has issued some warnings of side effects and you should be aware of them before you sign up for a cupping session.
Possible Side Effects of Cupping
There are some known side effects of cupping therapy. It will leave multiple circular reddish patches on his skin (where the cups are placed) temporarily. However, such marks will disappear in a week or two. Such discoloration is due to the broken blood vessels beneath the skin. However, if you experience persistent skin discoloration, you should consult a medical professional immediately. There are also potential risks, such as a risk of skin burns, scars and infections, and it may even worsen your acute eczema, psoriasis or other existing skin conditions.
There has also been rare cases of severe side effects reported, such as bleeding in the skull after cupping was performed on the scalp, and after repeated wet cupping, there was anemia from blood loss.
So, is cupping dangerous? Cupping has been performed all around the world since the olden days. Before starting on your treatment plan, we advise you to check the credibility of the institution, doctor and/or therapist that will be performing this alternative therapy on you. Also, do note that you should not always apply the cups to the same areas of your body continuously when you intend to use it as a form of therapy or relaxation. Otherwise, cupping is generally a safe form of therapy to complement western medicine, and to improve blood circulation, alleviate your pains and medical conditions and improve your overall quality of life.