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Written by Alison Mooradian   
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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Cupping Benefits

The large reddish-purple circles on some of the Olympic athletes’ backs last August prompted many in the United States to wonder what had caused these intense looking bruises. In fact, these bruises are caused by a wellness practice called cupping therapy.

What is cupping?
A practitioner places glass cups on areas of the body experiencing stiffness or pain. Using heat or air, the air inside the cup is suctioned out leaving a vacuum inside the cup. This vacuum pulls the skin and the blood vessels up towards the cup, which brings blood to the area. In turn, this improves circulation and loosens up muscles and joints. Cupping therapy is often used in conjunction with acupuncture.1 Generally, the cup is left on the skin for five to 15 minutes.2

Woman receiving cup therapyi

History of Cupping
The exact origin of cupping is unknown. It is believed to be at least 5,000 years old and historical accounts and ancient medicinal texts point to many cultures using this practice, from China to Bulgaria to Egypt to North America. However, the most detailed records come from China.3 Cupping is one of the earliest facets of Traditional Chinese Medicine and was initially used in the imperial courts. Ge Hong, a well-known Taoist, described cupping in his book, A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. At the time, animal horns were used as the cups, and the practice was used to draw the pus out of blisters. Cupping was also used to cause suction of the meridian points of the patient. There are also accounts of wet (or liquid) cupping from the Qing dynasty, which meant that cups were placed over areas of skin that had acupuncture needles in them.4

Cupping instruments have been found in many other regions of the world. For instance, Native Americans in North America used buffalo horns and bones, as well as seashells, for cupping.5 Many historical accounts point to women being the primary practitioners of cupping. By the late 1800s, Western male doctors had begun to create a new model of medicine and had also begun to discredit traditional forms of healing. Because these new doctors were fascinated with the internal workings of the human body, and they saw cupping as a surface treatment, and cupping was largely excluded from new Western medicine.6

Recently, the U.S. has seen professional athletes and celebrities donning these circular bruises. At the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, U.S. gymnast Alexander Naddour said of cupping, “That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy. It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”7 While traditionally cupping is done in conjunction with other health practices, many athletes are using it by itself. Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, shared, “It’s kind of an American phenomena, I think, to consider cupping by itself.”8


Cupping Health Benefits
Some question whether or not cupping actually works. This is because although there have been many studies on the matter, it is difficult to blind a subject to the fact that they have a suctioned cup on them. For this reason, some scholars think the placebo effect causes subjects to experience pain reductions. Keenan Robinson, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelp’s personal trainer, shared:
There is a psychological component where Michael has been doing this to feel good for a long time, about two years. Anything you can do to get the body to feel good ó you have to use an educational assessment on it. You have to make sure that what you’re doing is causing a physiological intent to recover.9
Robinson added, “We know that science says it isn’t detrimental. We know that science says it does in some cases help out. So we’re at least going to expose the athletes to it years out so they can at least get a routine into it.”10

Whether the effect is psychological or physiological, people definitely report health benefits from cupping. One of its main benefits is pain relief, especially for tense or injured muscles. Cupping has also been used to help heal skin conditions, such as acne, eczema, skin inflammation, and cellulite. A study in PLOS One even found that cupping was more effective at curing acne than prescription medications such as tetracycline. Since stress and tension impact our digestive system, cupping has also been used to help with digestive disorders by relaxing the organs throughout the body and getting things moving along again. Lastly, cupping has provided temporary relief for those with carpel tunnel syndrome.11 So what do you think, is it worth a try?!

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Last Updated ( Monday, 13 March 2017 )