If you watched this summer’s Olympic Games, you know they provided plenty of breakout moments for top athletes around the world.
But they also provided a breakout moment for a powerful and effective therapy I’ve been using at my clinics for years. I’m talking about cupping – the practice of applying glass or plastic cups and suction to different areas of the body.
Athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps use cupping to relieve muscle pain and to speed healing. And the telltale round, bruised marks on his body drew lots of attention and discussion during the Olympics.
But, believe it or not, pain relief is just one of the many ways that cupping can improve – and even revitalize – your overall health.
Cupping has a long (and VERY surprising) history Cupping is taught at modern acupuncture schools, and many acupuncture clinics will offer cupping as well. That’s led many people to think that cupping, like acupuncture, originated from ancient Chinese medicine.
But that’s not entirely true. The fact is, cultures all around the world have a history of ‘sucking out the bad stuff’, according to Dr. Paul Unschuld.
Ancient Chinese medicine was not alone in utilizing cupping. Centuries ago, Hippocrates, Galen, and Celsus, all of whom played a role in the development of Western medicine, used cupping and wrote about it. One thousand years ago, the Persian physician Avicenna described a technique for using cupping to disperse inflammation in the body.
So what kind of cupping is right for you?
Depending on where you go for treatment, you’ll see lots of different types of cupping performed. Cupping is actually the name given to a variety of techniques, all of which involve round glass or plastic ‘cups’ put on the body in such a way as to cause suction.
The suction can frequently leave some bruising on the back or wherever the cups are placed. The three main types of cupping are:
• Dry cupping: This is the most widely used today. The open end of the cup is placed over the portion of the body to be treated.
A small hand pump removes air from the cup, and sucks the skin and tissue up into the cup. Everything is kept in place for 5 to 20 minutes, sometimes longer. At the end of the treatment, a valve is opened to release the vacuum, and the cup comes off naturally.
• Fire cupping: With fire cupping, the cups are made of glass and have no valve – just a round, open end. A flame is introduced into the cup, which creates a momentary vacuum. Then, when the cup is placed on the body, the skin is sucked up into it. There is a sensation of momentary heat, but it’s done very rapidly and without burning.
In the case of fire cups, when the treatment is finished the vacuum is, broken by inserting the tip of the finger underneath the cup.
• Wet cupping: Wet cupping is done similarly, but first a tiny pinprick or stab through the skin is produced, and then the cup goes over that area. A bit of blood is frequently sucked into the cup by the vacuum, creating the ‘wet’ part. Although this type of cupping is still used in places, I’m going to guess most Olympic athletes don’t prefer it.
Watch pain, inflammation, and tight muscles disappear
Millions of people swear by cupping for relieving pain and inflammation. But, believe it or not, there’s actually been a healthy amount of debate around exactly how cupping works.
Here’s what we know. Cupping produces a negative pressure in your underlying tissues. This negative pressure brings blood and immune cells to the area (called hyperaemia), which improves circulation and promotes healing.
In addition, when your muscles are in spasm, they can actually block your blood from flowing through your capillaries. Tiny clots can form throughout the capillary system.
The application of negative pressure through cupping pulls some of these micro-clots to the surface. That can cause some superficial bruising, but it allows for better circulation and the relaxation of your muscles.
But tight muscles are not the only problem that responds to cups. One randomized control study, reported recently in The Journal of Pain, showed that cupping helped improve carpal tunnel syndrome, a problem related to tendons and nerves in the wrists. Postherpetic neuralgia, a painful condition that is a result from getting shingles, also seems to respond to cupping.
A 2012 meta-analysis looked at over 100 randomized controlled trials on cupping and listed facial paralysis, acne, and cervical spondylosis (wear and tear on the spinal disks) as other possible uses for cupping.
Can cupping help you beat asthma?
One of the most remarkable uses for cupping that I’ve seen is its ability to improve asthma symptoms. And that makes sense, considering the connection between asthma and inflammation.
I had a patient in her upper 80s who had severe asthma. She also had heart disease, so the medications for asthma were dangerous for her. I started performing cupping on her back, every two weeks. She told me this was actually a familiar therapy, as her ‘Nonnie’ (she was of Italian ancestry) used cups on family members when they were ill or injured.
My patient lived another seven years, with no further need for asthma medications, other than the biweekly cupping. Since then, I have treated a number of other patients with asthma preventively, using nothing but the simple treatment.
And I wasn’t exactly the first to discover that cupping can be effective for breathing or lung conditions. In 1931, Sir William Osler, a famous physician, indicated cupping in his textbook for the treatment of bronchopneumonia.
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 10, Issue 10 • October 2016
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.