We’ve all seen photos of large red circles dotting someone’s back as they swear it’s in the pursuit of wellness. Since cupping ostensibly seems uncomfortable, we had to investigate the benefits of this ancient practice. While cupping may cause swelling, soreness, slight pain and bruising, says chief of acupuncture at ORA Gabriel Sher, the healing properties, both physical and cosmetic, are well worth it. (He also notes that the suction sensation fades once the cups are removed.)
Cupping has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years to “decrease pain, reduce fevers and promote overall health by clearing stagnation from the body,” says Wilding cofounder and licensed acupuncturist Gianna De La Torre. Today, cupping is used to address a wide range of health conditions and cosmetic concerns. Cupping can be used as an add-on to acupuncture or as a stand-alone treatment, says founder of Moon Rabbit Acupuncture Gudrun Snyder DAc.
What is cupping?
Simply put, Dr. Snyder describes cupping as the reverse of a massage. “A massage pushes down on skin, muscle, and tissue while cupping pulls up,” explains Dr. Snyder. These cups stay in place for five to 15 minutes and often leave the signature cupping marks. De La Torre explains that, during this process, the suction pulls the skin away from the muscle layer.
The intention is to increase circulation and energy flow where the cups are applied and a suction formed, explains Sher. “The cups isolate blood through this suction. This then de-oxygenates unhealthy or stagnant blood which usually shows up as chronic pain or muscle tension,” says Sher. “Once the cups are removed, the body sends new and fresh red blood cells to regenerate these areas.”
This gentle suction, also known as negative pressure, “stimulates blood flow and promotes new blood vessel formation. This creates a micro-trauma in the skin, triggering an inflammatory response (similar to microneedling),” says acupuncturist and founder of The Facial Cupping Expert Sakina Di Pace. “The skin reacts by making collagen to heal itself by plumping and filling out, strengthening skin and tissue. The negative pressure also releases fascia adhesions of multiple layers of the skin. This results in a better lymphatic and energy flow and releases muscular tension.”
How did cupping begin?
Cupping has been around for ages. De La Torre says the practice originated in China during the Ming Dynasty around 1500 BC. Over the years, “It has been used both as a type of family folk medicine as well as in clinical practice by licensed acupuncturists and in Chinese-style bodywork,” says De La Torre.
According to Dr. Snyder, “Traditional cupping methods made use of fire to create a vacuum inside of a rounded vessel. Today we use vacuum cupping with suction on either glass, plastic or silicone cups.” Dr. Snyder notes that the practice has historically been used “for anything from upper respiratory infections, a crick in the neck, back pain and even detox.”
Who is a good candidate for cupping?
Experts say cupping is generally considered safe and beneficial for most people. Lead healer at WTHN Laura Sniper, DAc, suggests that “If you have any underlying health conditions, please speak to your medical provider or acupuncturist first to help address any specific concerns.” Dr. Snyder says those weakened by chemotherapy, illness or malnutrition may not be suitable candidates as the practice can move a great deal of fluids. She notes that because of this, anyone going to a cupping appointment should arrive hydrated and having had a small meal.
Sher does not advise “using cups on areas where there is broken skin, rashes or other types of skin abrasions.” Dr. Snyder says those with open wounds or skin infections should wait until the skin is healed to try cupping. “Additionally, if you are extremely hairy, the cups may not suction sufficiently. So you may want to consider hair removal in those areas,” says Dr. Snyder.
Cupping helps alleviate aches and pains
One of the most common uses of body cupping is to relieve aches and pains. While Dr. Snyder notes that this is mostly seen on the backside of the body, cups can be used on the chest, shoulders and other areas experiencing pain by a trained provider. Dr. Sniper says cupping can even help relieve jaw pain when used on the face.
Facial cupping can have anti-aging benefits
“Facial cupping is used to plump fine lines and wrinkles, tone and detox the skin,” says De La Torre. “It works by moving Qi and blood in the tissue and also boosts collagen production.”
Di Pace explains that according to TCM, “facial cupping moves stagnant Qi (which can be translated as life force, or energy) along the meridians of the face to improve its flow.” This results in brighter, glowing skin with fewer fine lines and wrinkles. Dr. Sniper adds that it can even uplift the skin.
Cupping can tighten skin and reduce the appearance of cellulite
De La Torre says cupping is often used for cosmetic purposes on the body. She notes that it’s an amazing way “to decrease the appearance of cellulite, tighten and tone the skin.” When it comes to the face, Di Pace says it can even help reduce the appearance of a double chin.
Facial cupping can reduce puffiness
Dr. Snyder uses facial cupping to decrease puffiness. She notes that it’s “especially effective for under the eyes.” De La Torre says the practice can improve dark circles as well as puffiness.
Facial cupping can help with acne and hives
Sher explains that according to TCM, all skin disorders, including acne and hives, deal with heat in the system. He adds that cupping can help address these skin concerns. De La Torre says the practice is beneficial for breakout-prone skin because it helps detoxify the skin and promote lymphatic flow.
Cupping can help with medical conditions
Dr. Sniper says cupping can be really helpful when trying to recover from a cold as it can help decongest the lungs. Di Pace says people with specific health conditions, such as chronic sinusitis, Bell’s Palsy, headaches and trigeminal neuralgia can benefit from cupping.
Facial cupping can plump lips
According to Di Pace, cupping can boost the plumpness of the lips. Think of it as the grown-up version of the TikTok lip suctioning trend.
Cupping has gastrointestinal benefits
According to Sher, cupping can also help with gastrointestinal issues. “When cupping therapy is used on the abdomen, this improves circulation and promotes movement of bowels through the intestines,” he explains.
Cupping can reduce the appearance of scars
Di Pace says cupping can help reduce the appearance of scars. Due to this, women often try cupping to lighten cesarean scars.
Cupping promotes better circulation
Cupping gives circulation a boost, which benefits a myriad of other body functions. Additionally, Sher explains that cupping can “draw heavier blood out of the bloodstream allowing thinner blood to circulate throughout the body.”
Cupping relieves tightness in the body
Dr. Sniper says cupping is great for relieving muscle tension and can be used on tight muscles in both the body and face. “Cupping releases knots and fascial constrictions by creating suction over tight muscles,” explains Sher, noting that it’s especially great for muscles that run along the spine.
Cupping helps detox the body
Dr. Sniper notes that cupping is a great detox treatment. Boosting circulation to many tissues helps the body remove cellular waste, she explains. Sher also notes that cupping “draws toxins up to the surface, which the body can process more easily.”
Cupping can help reduce stress
Not only is cupping beneficial to your physical form, but it can also support your mental well-being. Di Pace says cupping is great for general stress reduction.
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