What is cupping?
Cupping is the application of suction to the surface of the body for therapeutic effect and
it has been used for thousands of years in a myriad of cultures. Not only in East Asian countries, but Middle Eastern (called hijama), Mediterranean (ventosa), and Eastern European (bankas) each have their take on this useful ancient therapy. In traditional cupping, a container is heated and this cup is then placed on the skin to provide suction. Modern cupping uses this method also, but alternately may use cups with pump or pneumatic suction.
How is cupping helpful?
Cupping helps the body heal quickly, as it causes a hyper-perfusion (or increase) of blood to an injured area. Because it mechanically decompresses tissues, it can help conditions where there is muscular tightness or mild impingements.
Cupping is believed to have systemic benefits for the immune system as well. Because it improves blood circulation and flow of extracellular fluids, the body can better mobilize its functions around a weak or injured area. We use it frequently as an adjunct for cough and wheezing, where it treats tired and constricted intercostal muscles, as well as improves the response of the body’s immune system.
The British Cupping Society cites that cupping therapy is used to treat:
Lumbar disc herniation
Fertility and gynecological disorders
Bronchial congestion caused by allergies and asthma
What is a cupping treatment like?
The sensation from cupping is unlike anything else. It is a unique feeling, but not unpleasant or painful, and people really enjoy the relief that comes from it.
There is normally hyperpigmentation that follows a cupping treatment. This shows as pink or red circular marks. (Look for them on your favorite professional athletes!) These completely fade within 3-14 days, depending on the person.
Cupping used in conjunction with acupuncture.
Cupping can be performed either as a stand alone treatment or as a component of an acupuncture treatment.
Cupping is a valuable tool in the acupuncturist’s toolkit. Cupping may be done before or after acupuncture needling to stretch the fascia of tightened muscle groups. Getting that extra fascial stretch can help people hold the benefit of an acupuncture treatment for a longer duration. Adding a myofascial therapy such as cupping (or gua sha, or tui na massage) to an acupuncture session provides a powerful 1-2-punch for relieving pain.
Why hasn’t cupping been included in more clinical trials?
Some studies have been done that demonstrate the efficacy of cupping, but because of limitations in study design, they are not considered “high quality.”
This limitation in quality is due to the difficulty in creating “blind studies.” The highest quality clinical studies are double-blind, meaning neither the patient or the practitioner knows whether the patient is getting real treatment or simulated treatment.
With cupping, this is nearly impossible to do--any application of suction could potentially have mild therapeutic effect, a trained practitioner would easily be able to distinguish real from sham treatment, and patients may be able to tell whether they were receiving the therapy.
Choosing a practitioner
It is best to receive cupping from a trained and experienced healthcare professional. A person offering cupping therapy does not need to be certified or licensed to perform the procedure, so you must look for qualifications.
Cupping is fully covered under the legal scope of practice for acupuncturists in Vermont state and most other states. Acupuncturists receive training and clinical supervision in cupping during the course of their training. They must pass a practical CNT exam demonstrating proper use of cups before becoming board certified and licensed in acupuncture.
Some massage therapists perform cupping. Check to make sure your massage therapist is not only trained and qualified in cupping specifically, but also insured. Cupping is excluded from most major malpractice insurances for massage therapists. Even though side effects are extremely rare and even more rarely serious, but it is best to have a properly covered practitioner.
Potential Side Effects of Cupping
There aren’t many side effects associated with cupping. Any side effects you may experience will typically occur during your treatment or immediately after.
Circular marks, as stated above, are normal. Bruising is less common, but possible particularly if you are on medications that thin the blood. Skin irritation is rare in the absence of underlying dermatological condition. Rarely people feel dizzy, sweaty or nauseated during or after treatment. Proper hydration reduces this effect. Let your practitioner know about any underlying health conditions or any medications you are taking.
The risk of infection can be reduced by using proper disinfection methods. You may want to ask about your practitioner’s disinfection process. ACCAOM recommends high level disinfection for cups to prevent the potential spread of bloodborne pathogens.
Rutland Integrative Health offers cupping as part of our regular acupuncture treatments. Starting July 1, 2019, we will be offering cupping as a stand-alone modality. Call 802-776-4901 for more information, or to book your appointment.
By Beth Bloomfield, L.Ac., MS