Cupping therapy, which uses cups to create suction on the skin, is a popular treatment for muscle tension, chronic pain, fatigue, and inflammation. It has been a key part of traditional Middle Eastern and Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
Ancient Egyptians used cupping over 5,500 years ago, and the therapy spread to cultures around the world. The 2016 Olympic Games helped raise awareness worldwide when U.S. athletes bore cupping suction marks on their backs.
The technique has been gaining traction in the United States due to its noninvasive nature and low cost.
This article discusses the history and purpose of cupping therapy. It also covers types, benefits, risks, and what to expect during a cupping therapy session.
What Is Cupping?
Cupping involves placing small cups on troubled areas of the body and creating suction to pull the tissue up slightly. This may help relax muscles and tissues, relieve pain, and trigger the body’s natural healing processes.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, cupping opens skins pores and stimulates blood flow. It is thought to help balance the flow of energy called the qi. Cupping is often used along with acupuncture and massage therapies.
Cupping therapy is generally safe for many conditions. You may experience a warm, stretching sensation, but the procedure should not hurt. If you feel pain, your practitioner should reduce suction or end the treatment.
Who Should Not Get Cupping
- Children under 4 years old and older adults: Very young individuals and older adults have a greater risk of severe marking and blistering.
- Pregnant women: During pregnancy, cupping should not be applied to the lower back and the lower and upper abdomen to avoid the risk of early contractions. Cupping also should be avoided during the first trimester.
- Anyone on blood-thinning medications: These people could experience excessive bleeding or bruising with this therapy.
Types of Cupping Therapy
Cupping techniques vary by suction method, suction power, the area treated, other materials used with the cups, and other factors. Techniques include:
- Dry cupping: A cupping professional generates negative pressure inside cups with fire, a manual pump, or electrical suctioning. Dry cupping is also called retained cupping or static cupping.
- Massage cupping: A therapist applies oil to the skin and moves the cups with weak suction. Massage cupping is also called dynamic cupping, gliding cupping, and moving cupping.
- Flash cupping: A practitioner uses quick suctions of light to medium pressure for less than 30 seconds at a time. This is also called empty cupping. Flash cupping is suitable for people who should not use dry cupping, such as children.
- Wet cupping: A cupping professional lightly punctures the skin before applying the cups. This method is also known as full cupping, bleeding cupping, or bloodletting cupping. Wet cupping carries a higher risk of scarring, infection, and fainting. This method is not legal in some states or countries.
- Needle cupping: Needle cupping is used along with acupuncture. The therapist applies short acupuncture needles, then they place cups on the areas to be treated.
- Laser cupping: A laser probe is placed inside the cups to stimulate acupuncture points. This method is designed to combine the benefits of acupuncture and cupping in one session.
- Herbal cupping: A practitioner boils an herbal solution, soaks bamboo cups, and applies the slightly cooled cups to the skin.
- Electrical stimulation cupping: This includes transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for a double effect like laser cupping. It is commonly used for muscular pain and targeting specific points.
- Magnetic cupping: This uses cups with magnets inside often to treat conditions affecting knees or other large joints.
- Water cupping: This technique uses cups partially filled with warm water. The practitioner also places burning cotton wool in the cup before applying the cup to the skin.
- Aquatic cupping: This is performed underwater, where muscles may be stretched more. This type of therapy is often used for musculoskeletal problems or rehabilitation.
During cupping therapy, a therapist applies small, round cups made of glass, plastic, bamboo, or clay to the troubled area. Traditionally, this therapy uses sets of four, six, or 10 cups.
Therapists commonly apply cups to the back, chest, buttocks, and abdomen. The face may be treated, too. Cups remain in place for five to 20 minutes.
The process includes these steps:
- Disinfecting the area targeted for therapy
- Positioning the cup and creating suction for three to five minutes
- Replacing the cup on the skin for another three to five minutes
- Removing the cup, cleaning the treated area
How Does It Work?
Several theories are used to explain how cupping therapy can bring relief, including:
- Gate control theory of pain: This theory suggests that cupping therapy increases the frequency of pain impulses. The intense, prolonged stimulation causes small and large nerve fibers to counteract each other. This may help reduce the sensation of pain.
- Conditioned pain modulation: This concept, also called diffuse noxious inhibitory controls (DNICs), is based on the idea that one type of pain can mask another. An area of discomfort may experience relief as pressure or pain is applied to another area of the body.
- Reflex zone theory: This theory, often referred to as reflexology, claims that body organs are linked by interactions between nerves, muscles, and chemicals. A problem in one organ limits the flow of blood and other fluids near that organ. Other parts of the body may show uncomfortable symptoms as a result. Cupping therapy may stimulate skin nerve receptors and improve blood flow through nerve connections to the affected body part.
Benefits of Cupping Therapy
Cupping therapy has a reputation for easing discomfort and improving quality of life. The following conditions may improve with this treatment:
- Low-back pain: Cupping can help lessen pain and improve function among people with acute and chronic low-back pain.
- Fibromyalgia: Cupping therapy, alone or with acupuncture and conventional medicine, has successfully relieved pain in patients with fibromyalgia, a condition of widespread musculoskeletal pain.
- Chronic neck pain: Cupping therapy can help relax neck muscles and make them more flexible.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome: Cupping may help reduce pain and numbness associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects the hands and wrists.
- Heavy menstrual bleeding: Dry cupping may help decrease the amount of menstrual blood flow in women with menorrhagia (excessive menstrual bleeding).
Cupping therapy also shows potential to treat:
- Digestive issues
- Diseases of the lungs and airways, including bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia
- Eczema (red, itchy skin) and boils (painful infection of hair follicles)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Cellulite (fat deposits beneath the skin that cause a dimpled appearance)
Cupping is generally safe, but you may experience minor side effects during or immediately after cupping therapy. The following conditions typically subside within a few days or weeks:
- Erythema (redness of the skin where cups were placed)
- Ecchymosis (skin discoloration due to blood moving from ruptured blood vessels into the skin’s top layer)
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Worsened psoriasis or eczema
Be Mindful of Your Skin
Cupping is not advisable if you have sensitive or fragile skin. In cases of skin trauma, wait until you have improved before beginning or resuming this treatment.
Cupping also carries a slight risk of infection, especially if the equipment isn’t disinfected between patients. Your practitioner should be following proper cleaning and sanitation guidelines to help you avoid this.
Rare side effects include:
- Skin scarring
- Hematoma (abnormal bruise from a broken blood vessel)
- Bleeding if cupping is done on the scalp
- Anemia from repeated wet cupping
Consult your cupping therapist if you experience any of these side effects. They may advise you on ways to avoid or ease injury.
How to Prepare for Cupping Therapy
Before your cupping session, eat a light meal about two hours ahead to help ensure you’ll have energy stores. It is best not to do cupping on an empty stomach, when the body may be weaker than normal. On the other hand, a full stomach may make your session uncomfortable.
Avoid greasy foods and increase your water intake to help with detoxifying your body.
Cupping therapy is an age-old practice to help ease tension, chronic pain, and inflammation. It uses special cups that stretch and relax the skin and muscles. Although temporary red marks may result, the procedure does not normally cause extreme discomfort.
Cupping can stimulate the nerves and blood flow to mask or decrease the feeling of pain. It may also support the body’s own healing capabilities.
This treatment may enhance your healthcare regimen. Cupping has brought relief to people dealing with fatigue, migraines, high blood pressure, and a host of respiratory conditions. However, a cupping therapist should not replace your primary healthcare provider.
A Word From Verywell
It is frustrating to manage chronic pain or a condition like fibromyalgia, migraine, or high blood pressure. Many people try a broad selection of treatments before finding something that helps them with the pain. Cupping can be a helpful complementary treatment in some of these cases.
While the risk of injury from cupping is low, it is always best to consult with your healthcare provider before trying any new treatment methods.
Frequently Asked Questions
What comes out of your body when you do cupping therapy?
During dry cupping, no fluid should come out of your skin. Wet cupping does draw out blood, however. Although cupping is believed to draw out toxins, supporting evidence is scarce.
How often should you do cupping therapy?
Some people visit a practitioner two or three times weekly for cupping sessions. Depending on the method you use, you may need to give your skin time to recover. Your practitioner can help you determine the best frequency for your condition.
Who can perform cupping therapy?
Acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and physical trainers may offer cupping therapy. Make sure that your cupping practitioner is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).
Some states do not require NCCAOM certification. Others may have additional criteria for licensing.