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What Is Cupping? A Guide to the Ancient Therapy

BY: Editors | Nov 15, 2017

Cupping has been around for centuries, but in the last decade it has become more and more mainstream. From celebrities on the red carpet to Michael Phelps during the Olympics, those bright red, circular marks sure do catch your eye. But what is cupping therapy exactly? We interviewed Groupon beauty blogger Favin, who went under the cup. Here's everything we learned about cupping.

What Is Cupping?

Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine where a therapist uses special cups and fire to create a suction on the surface of skin. The cups themselves are typically made from glass, bamboo, or silicone. This process, which is painless, is said to help with many ailments, from muscle and back pain to anxiety.

Cupping Massage: The Process

Favin went to see her acupuncturist—Gianna Norini, at Whole Body Health and Wellness in Chicago for this traditional treatment. "At first, it's sort of like a massage," Favin said. You undress from the waist up and lay down on an ergonomic table. Your back is first cleaned with a rubbing alcohol and then is massaged with a relaxing lavender oil to help the cups move easier.

Now comes the unconventional part. In order for the cups to adhere to skin, they need a vacuum-like suction. Gianna did this by using a piece of cotton with metal tongs. She then lit the cotton on fire, and waved it inside a cup. The cup was then placed upside-down on Favin's back, where it created an airtight seal against her skin.

"At first, she put one small cup on either side of my spine, alternately sliding each one up and down my back to get my circulation going. Whichever one she moved felt like someone was pulling on my skin, and the stationary one felt like the push of a massage,' said Favin.

After Gianna slid the two small cups around for a few minutes, she left them to sit on Favin's shoulders, and fired up two medium and two large cups. These were placed them on her mid and lower back to sit for 10 minutes. The size of the cup, just corresponds to the size of the body area. Large cups don't create any more "pull" than small ones.

Does Cupping Hurt?

Although this therapy may look both odd and uncomfortable, it's not painful. "When I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, it looked like I had light bulbs growing out of my back, and you could see the skin being sucked up into the cups!" said Favin "It definitely looked a lot weirder than a massage, but it didn't feel that weird, though."

"I noticed the pressure in my shoulders, but I could hardly feel the cups on my lower back."

– Favin, Groupon Beauty Blogger

Once the 10 minutes were up, each cup is popped off by pressing down on the skin next to it. Each cup leaves a raised, red circle on your back. The Chinese call these markings sha, which refers to a release of stagnation—the darker the mark, the more stagnant the blood and energy was in that area. These indentations go away quickly, and the redness should fade in about a week. Her only post-treatment advice? Stay away from cold. "Cold and dampness is often what causes tension, so you want to avoid A/C and bundle up against cold weather."

What is cupping used for?

The goal of cupping is to resolve swelling, pain, and tension. "It's the same end results [as a massage]," Gianna said. "You're going to bring in blood flow, you're gonna break up adhesions in the muscle…From an Eastern standpoint, you're also going to release chi and blood that has been trapped in the system."

Favin asked Gianna why some people chose cupping over a massage. "Sometimes, like on a shoulder, it's nice to create a vacuum and create that space for blood to come in. The shoulder is pretty poorly enervated," she said. Long-standing trigger points are usually spots that can benefit from cupping the most.

But cupping isn't only for sore muscles. It's said to aid with the flu, colds, cough, fevers, back and muscle pain, poor circulation, anxiety, skin irritations and conditions, allergies, and much more. Researches have studied the benefits of cupping both in the U.S. and China. Since clinical trials have different standards depending on what country they take place in, there are no official findings to report. However, the health benefits remain significant and the process itself is low risk.

This article was originally published in a slightly different format, and has since been modified by our editors.