Health & Beauty

It’s Not a Hickey, I Swear! What Is Cupping, and Why Do It?


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 2016 Olympics, cupping creates those bright red, circular marks that sure do catch your eye. But what is cupping therapy, exactly? I tried it so I could tell you.

What Is Cupping?

A man getting cupping therapy on his back.

Cupping therapy is an ancient form of medicine where a therapist uses special cups to create a suction on the surface of skin.

Traditionally, the therapist would use fire to create a suction (this does not burn you). But there are more modern cups that use a suction tool which makes the process a lot faster and easier. The cups themselves are typically made from glass, bamboo or silicone. This process is said to help with many ailments, from muscle and back pain to anxiety.

Cupping Massage: The Process

Close-up of a person holding a flame getting ready to heat a cupping device.

I booked a session at Eastern Integrative Health in Chicago for this traditional treatment. The process starts out similar to a massage. First, my therapist explained the process so that I would know what to expect, and then asked why I was there and what I wanted to focus on. I told him that I had started weight-lifting and my upper back was very grumpy about it. He then left the room while I undressed from the waist up and laid face down on the massage table.

That’s mostly where the similarities with a massage stop. My therapist used the more modern process of suctioning the cups to my back using a pump that was specifically made for this purpose. He explained to me that he would do 2-3 rounds of suction to make sure that we had covered my entire back and focused on my problem areas. He started with five cups, on my shoulder blades, lats and lower back. Each round he moved them to different areas of my back and left them for 7-10 minutes.

Some of the spots didn’t feel like anything, and some of the spots I could tell he was hitting a sore point (which, surprisingly, felt incredible). He explained to me that some of the marks would be darker than others, and that the darker the mark, the more that spot needed healing.

During Therapy: Does Cupping Hurt?

Skin raised during cupping therapy.

Although this therapy may look odd and uncomfortable, it’s not particularly painful. You can imagine what it’s going to feel like, but if you haven’t experienced it first-hand, it’s hard to capture the sensation. My therapist said “it’s like getting hugged by an octopus,” and, I guess that’s right? There’s a lot of pressure at first, but you get used to it quickly. I would say that my first round was the most uncomfortable, but rounds two and three were relaxing. He turned an infrared light on and I felt like a little sunbathing lizard (getting hugged by an octopus, of course).

Once the 7-10 minutes were up, he came back and used the pump to release the pressure and took the cups off. 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.

What Is Cupping Used For?

The goal of cupping is to resolve swelling, pain and tension. The idea is that the suction pulls old blood and energy to the surface and allows for new to circulate into the sore muscles. It can function similarly to a massage or acupuncture, but it works to target specific points, and can help with your back and shoulders where the muscles aren’t too deep. If you’re having pain in your neck or hips, those muscles are deeper, and the pressure from the suction won’t be able to reach them very well.

But cupping isn’t only for sore muscles. Some also use it to aid with the flu, colds, cough, fevers, back and muscle pain, poor circulation, anxiety, skin irritations and conditions, allergies and much more. Researchers 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 potential health benefits remain, and the process itself is low risk.

Curious to try it yourself? Check out cupping therapy deals near you.

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


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