During the 2016 Olympics, many of the swimmers sported odd-looking, cup-shaped bruises on their bodies. These bruises were the result of cupping, a staple of traditional Chinese medicine. Cupping may help revive tired muscles by increasing blood flow. But are there real benefits of cupping or is it all a bunch of hype?
Here’s a look at the pros and cons of cupping:
What is Cupping, Exactly?
The theory behind cupping is that it increases blood flow to a certain area. Athletes use it in order for tired muscles to recover faster from a workout. Proponents say it also stimulates your “qi” (pronounced chee), or natural energy. It’s been around for thousands of years as a way to help remove toxins from the body.1
How it Works
Cupping is sort of like a reverse massage. The suction produced when you apply a cup to your skin pulls up on your muscles and tissue. Massage, on the other hand, typically entails downward pressure on muscles.
With cupping, you place a slightly heated massage cup (which could be a plastic jar or a drinking glass) on the skin. This cup suctions out air and creates a vacuum. Proponents of cupping believe it increases blood flow, helps relieve pain, and pulls toxins from the tissues.2
The suctioning process of cupping usually creates a feeling of relaxation. Some practitioners keep the cups in place for a bit. Others move them around to different areas of the body. Some cupping sessions are fast while others take several minutes. The back is one of the more common areas used for cupping, but it can work on any fleshy part of the body.
If you give this form of traditional Chinese medicine a try, the area of your skin being cupped will turn either purple, red, or blue. It may stay this way anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks or so. You can repeat the procedure once the skin clears and do so until your ailment goes away.3
There are two main methods of cupping – fixed and moving. Here are brief descriptions of each.
Fixed cupping –
This is where a massage cup is placed on a part of the body and then left in place.
Moving cupping –
This method involves the use of cream or oil, as well as massage cups. The cream or oil is applied to the skin, and then cups are placed. The practitioner then slides the cups along that area.
The Benefits of Chinese Cupping Therapy
Cupping is most closely associated with traditional Chinese medicine. But there is evidence that it was used thousands of years ago in Egypt as well. The “Father of Modern Medicine,” Hippocrates, was also a proponent.4
A lot of notable athletes have turned to cupping in hopes of keeping them in the game. For example, tennis star Andy Murray said he used it to help with the stiffness he felt due to a back issue.5 Whether the benefits of cupping or real or imagined, some top-tier athletes believe it helps them to perform better.
Many non-athletes believe that cupping not only helps increase their energy levels, but provides other benefits as well. Proponents say it helps with muscle pain, as well as other ailments.6
The Drawbacks of Chinese Cupping Therapy
Negative side effects linked with cupping may include slight nausea, sweating or, in some cases, dizziness. There is a slight risk of infection if an unqualified practitioner performs cupping.7 Practitioners should always use clean equipment. They must also wear protective items, such as goggles and gloves.
But, people with certain health conditions should not undergo cupping therapy. For example, those with hemophilia, or other types of blood disorders, could suffer complications. The same holds true for people taking blood thinners.8 Also, you should avoid cupping if you have an infection, an open wound, or a burn on the area of skin being treated.9
The Bottom Line
Again, cupping is harmless for the vast majority of people. Whether you will enjoy enhanced blood flow or the removal of harmful toxins from your body is a matter of debate. There’s really not a lot of hard, scientific evidence to prove if cupping works or doesn’t work. But if you think it helps and it does no harm, you might as well give it a try. Just make sure you talk to your doctor first to be safe.