How It Works
According to Jennifer Dubowsky, a licensed acupuncturist and cupping practitioner, the purpose of cupping is “to enhance circulation, help relieve pain, remove heat and pull out the toxins that linger in your body’s tissues.” (11)
Cupping involves the use of cups applied to a patient’s back in a series of positions in order to produce suction. The vacuum effect targets areas of skin and deep tissue within the back, which is beneficial for dulling pain, breaking up deep scar tissue, and relaxing tender muscles or connective tissue. In this way, cupping is almost like the opposite of getting a massage since instead of applying pressure to swollen areas, it draws pressure out. For this reason, cupping is often done in patients who experience chronic lower back pain, muscle knots, tightness due to anxiety, swelling, or stiffness.
How They’re Made
Back when cupping first originated, animal horns, clay pots, brass cups, and bamboo were used to create the cups, but today cups are commonly made out of more durable materials, such as glass or heat-resistant plastic and rubber. The exact type of cup used depends on the practitioner’s preference and the patient’s condition. Cups come in different materials, shapes, and sizes, which means some are more useful for targeting certain ailments than others. Nowadays, fire suction cups made out of glass and plastic are the most common, followed by rubber cups. Silicone, bio-magnetic, electric, and facial cups are other options.
Types of Cupping
Dry Cupping/Fire Cupping
The most popular technique for cupping, called “dry cupping” or “fire cupping,” involves a trained practitioner first placing cups on the patient’s back and then carefully heating the cups using fire.
Sometimes a special cupping “torch” is used to light the cups on fire safety, or in other cases, the cups are heated in hot water or oil. The hot cups are sealed off and held in place for five to 15 minutes on the patient’s back while they cool down, which produces a vacuum effect. This is considered a type of “fixed cupping” because the cups aren’t moved around but rather sit still.
The cups contract while on the patient’s skin, which causes suctioning, so the skin is then pulled into the cup, stretching out skin tissue and improving blood flow, which facilitates healing. To light the cups on fire, normally a cotton ball is soaked in rubbing alcohol and then lit, placed into the cup very quickly, and then removed. The cups are then placed down on the patient’s skin, and as oxygen is removed, suctioning naturally occurs.
“Moving cupping” is similar but involves applying massage oil to the skin first, which helps the heated cups glide over tense areas on the patient’s back.
Bleeding Cupping and Wet Cupping
There are several different cupping techniques used by practitioners today. While cupping using fire is the most common type (usually called “dry cupping”), two less common practices are called “bleeding cupping” and “wet cupping.” Heated and then cooled cups are the traditional way to create suction, but the vacuum effect can also be created with a mechanical suction pump, which is used in most wet cutting techniques.
The terminology used to describe various cupping techniques can get confusing, but “wet cupping” is the name given to the method used most often in parts of the Middle East. Wet cupping, or “bleeding cupping” as it’s sometimes called, is always fireless but involves drawing the patient’s blood using a pump. Wet cupping involves “blood-letting,” usually by making a tiny incision into the patient’s skin before the cup is applied and blood is drawn.
In this technique, the practitioner creates suction with his or her hands and uses needles or a pump to remove a small amount of the patient’s blood, which is thought to improve energy in the body and remove toxins. Tiny pricking needles are inserted into the skin to draw three to four drops of blood before the cup is applied over the site. Or, a pump is used exclusively instead, which might be a “modern” type, such as an electromagnetic pump, or a more traditional pump that uses magnets and gravity. (12)
Cupping Therapy – Is it Safe?
Cupping might sound a bit scary to someone who’s new to the practice, but rest assured that cupping isn’t usually painful, and most trained practitioners are very careful to use sterile equipment. During a cupping session, it’s common to feel some heat and tightness around the cup, but many people find this to actually be relaxing and soothing.
Cupping has come a long way since it first originated in terms of hygiene and improved safety standards. Today, most cupping practitioners use rubber gloves, new and sterile needles (if wet cupping is being done), and alcohol swabs to reduce the risk of contamination or blood transfer. As cupping becomes more popular on a global scale, more nations are mandating that safety guidelines be carefully followed, which is good news for patients.
Cupping is considered a safe practice, but it’s important to find a well-trained practitioner who is licensed and follows legislated guidelines. While the different cupping techniques seem to be similar in terms of effectiveness, dry cupping is likely the safest since it doesn’t involve needles or blood. Make sure to do your research and find an experienced practitioner who is well-trained in using cupping tools, which will ensure you get the most benefits from your session and aren’t at risk for injury.
Cupping should be avoided if the patient is experiencing skin infection, inflammation, ulcer, or sensitivity. It’s also not recommended for pregnant women since not enough research has been done to show it’s safe. Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for skin discoloration to develop after cupping, which can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. For people with bleeding disorders or who are prone to bruising, cupping should be avoided. It can cause minor and temporary bruising in some people, but this can become problematic for those who don’t heal well from bruises.