Cupping. What is it? Who can it help? And who practices it most?
Cupping has been around for centuries and it is a staple treatment in most acupuncturists’ and Asian bodywork therapists’ repertoire. But that sigh you heard early on in the 2016 Olympics? That would be the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) world’s collective exhalation of joy when pictures of Michael Phelps started circulating and one news source after the other started reporting on “those red circles that looked like bruises.” Cupping, it seems, has made it to the mainstream of public consciousness as of now…and it’s about time, I say!
I myself saw how well cupping works on exhausted athletic bodies when I did field acupuncture at a Spartan Race event a few months ago. That, though, is another story and I will link it, below. For this essay, I do want to talk a little more about cupping in general and how I use it to great effect on my patients both in clinic and at the Two Hearts Wellness office in Austin, TX. Beyond the “wow” factor of the marks it leaves behind, cupping is a great way to achieve certain health and wellness goals. It could be that cupping is just what you could use in your life right now. Let’s explore, shall we?
Cupping is a therapy that draws outwardly. An acupuncture needle enters the flesh with a push or a tap and a tui na treatment, for its part, relies on pushing and grasping and pressing and kneading. Cupping, in contrast, pulls. A plastic or silicon rubber or a heated glass cup is place on oiled skin and the resulting suction tugs the skin upward in a way that loosens tight muscles and causes stagnant blood to flow. Sometimes this results in sweating and mild pinkness of the skin. Other times it results in purple marks that are visually akin to bruises. The result is a greater sense of calm, relaxed muscles, and (according to the circumstances) cleared lungs or reduced headache or an end to stomach troubles. Depending on the skill of the practitioner and the location of the cups, the benefits of cupping are tremendous and widely varied.
Have you ever tried cupping? Or have you had an Asian bodywork therapy (ABT) treatment? (This could be Thai massage or shiatsu; if you have come to see me, as you know, I practice Chinese tui na style bodywork). I can’t speak for the other styles, but when it’s a Chinese treatment, cupping may well be a part of what your practitioner will do for you. In my own practice, cupping is fundamental. And, though I had intended to write a new tui na essay for my latest blog post, clearly the moment has arrived to investigate the practice of cupping here at Two Hearts Wellness.
What can I tell you? I want to please and instruct you, my esteemed reader, so that you can either discover something wonderful, and (assuming you are in Austin, TX), I can inspire you to try ABT and/or acupuncture. And yet…there is so much to say. I think I’ll be writing more than one essay but, at least to start, let me talk to you a bit about some of my more common uses of cupping in my own practice.
It could be hard to picture just how cupping works in real life and why it works so marvelously, so it may help if I give you some concrete examples. One such relates to a patient of mine who is a master (in other words, older) athlete. They came to me as a last resort because they had a pain in a leg muscle that wouldn’t go away, a knot near the insertion point, and a yearly competition that was looming. The patient was afraid that they would not be able to compete and, since they are over the age of seventy, the ability to train hard and come back the following year seemed a remote possibility. This person needed the magic of Asian bodywork therapy (ABT) and I felt confident that I could be of service. When I felt the muscle in question, though, I knew that I needed to utilize a range of techniques. The muscle felt gritty, like a bag of sand. If I broke up the micro-scars with just my fingers, it would be painful and not necessarily effective. What I did, instead, was to alternate my techniques. I spent some time kneading and breaking up the scar tissue in the muscle by hand. I then took a moxibustion stick (this is a form of Chinese herbal therapy that is used to heat and nourish) and stimulated the muscle and infused it with smoky herbal warmth. Then I kneaded some more. Then I placed the cups and let them sit. Finally, I went back to the manual therapy and, at that point, was really able to dig in and smooth out the crunchy tissue. Between the three techniques, I was able to soften the muscle enough so that I could effectively work through the micro-scars that left this person’s muscle so prickly and rough-textured and sore. After six treatments, plus a visit to my mentor, Dr. Fan, who gave the patient one acupuncture treatment, the patient was able to go to their yearly competition and—in fact—they won their race and are now happily planning for next year’s meet.
I have several patients who love it when I alternate between tui na techniques and cupping during treatment. People with aching shoulders and those with sore lower backs really get a lot of relief from cupping. Between clinic and my office, I have treated digestive disorder, allergies, headache, stress complications, anxiety, and any number of muscle problems with cupping therapy.
Another truly enjoyable cupping treatment takes place when I have a facial rejuvenation patient. Here, I perform a truly wonderful tui na protocol and conclude the treatment by carefully stimulating the tissue with small, specially made facial cups. This, combined with a jade roller that is used to smooth the visage, is incredible for refining the jawline and drawing out wrinkles. It’s not a permanent fix, and for a longer-lasting result it does require several treatments and some lifestyle adjustment (no more hours in the sun with no sunscreen, for instance) but if a person wants to look beautiful for a date or a wedding or a special event of some sort, even one treatment with tui na, cupping, and the jade roller is phenomenal. And after a series of treatments, the results do last and are remarkable. The combination of pushing in some areas, gentle and appropriate drawing outward in others, and finally smoothing overall with the jade roller is an effective, soothing, and noticeably beautifying treatment. The cups are small but they are mighty!
Cups and cupping therapy can be used as a stand-alone treatment. As we see in the case of the wonderful Phelps photographs, cups are being used to loosen up tight muscles and to speed recovery. He’s not going to get tight muscles or painful lactic acid buildup when he’s had cupping. During his treatment, as you can see in the photograph here, the cups are drawing the skin out in such a way that stagnated blood and fluids are flushed out and moved. This action hydrates the tissues and stimulates metabolic activity. In this context, cupping is likely better than the pressing and pushing of massage or other like (for example, foam rolling). Based on the metabolic demands of an Olympian’s athletic pursuits, cupping makes the most sense for healing and recovery at this moment in time. Michael Phelps is a great ambassador for this modality because, as a highly successful Olympic athlete, he is a business in and of himself. The people charged with keeping his body in top condition are not going to do this because it’s a fad or because it sounds nice or because all the cool people have cupping marks on their shoulders. They do it because it works. (And the athletes who got cupping from me at the Spartan Race event, linked here, certainly loved it too).
Cupping is, as noted, a fundamental part of any traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner’s repertoire. We learn it as part of our graduate programs and it goes without saying that you want to have a licensed acupuncturist or a certified Asian bodywork therapist for best results. (On edit: If you are reading this essay after 2018 then please note that I am a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist now). We all spend quite a bit to time in clinic as interns under the watchful eyes of our supervisors before becoming licensed acupuncturists or certified professional bodywork therapists. Some of us, myself included, take extra seminars in order to perfect our technique, and styles can vary. Some of us prefer to use glass cups that we heat up and others rely more on plastic cups with a pump, or silicone ones that are squeezed and placed. It really depends on the patient’s needs and the practitioner’s interests and training. But as long as you are working with a trained TCM practitioner you can rest assured that you are being treated by a qualified professional and with a holistic mindset that is the product of considerable dedication and study.
If you are interested in cupping, don’t hesitate to contact me or your favorite local acupuncturist or Asian bodywork therapist. You don’t have to be a famous athlete to get the benefits of this ancient and efficacious modality, I promise!
Paula Bruno, Ph.D., L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, an AOBTA-CP traditional Chinese bodywork therapist, and a wellness educator. She maintains an active and growing practice at her Austin, TX office. Dr. Bruno is also available for distance appointments for wellness consultation or coaching.
In her first career, she was a Spanish professor.
Dr. Bruno’s specialties as a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner include: • Musculoskeletal health (acute or chronic pain relief; Ehlers Danlos syndrome & hypermobility support) • Digestive support, gut health, and weight loss • Aesthetic treatment, including scar revision • Men’s health • General preventative care and immune support for all persons.
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Note: Material on this web site site is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease, illness, or ailment. A TCM practitioner in Texas identifies syndrome patterns but does not diagnose illness. Material on this web site does not purport to identify syndrome patterns.