By now you’ve probably heard a thing or two about cupping, an alternative therapy that hails from ancient eastern medicine and leaves large circular marks reminiscent of hickies on the treated area. Cupping has been around for centuries (literally), but with elite athletes like Michael Phelps acting as walking billboards for the tension-relieving trend at the Olympics in Rio this summer, it’s no wonder it’s really making its mark (pun intended) again right now. We even tried it!
But for those still slightly confused and potentially offput by the 3000 year old technique, we enlisted holistic esthetician and acupuncturist Lorraine Lavenita of Health + Beauty in N.Y.C. to help break down cupping in the most clear cut way. Read on to learn more about the ancient technique and then use the MINDBODY app to find a location offering cupping near you.
What is cupping?
Basically, cupping is an alternative therapy that falls under the eastern medicine umbrella. "It's used primarily for muscle pain but can also be great for relieving ailments like colds and flus," says Lavenita. There are two types of cupping. One involves simply sucking the air from the cups to create suction and the other, which Lavenita refers to as fire cupping, relies on heat (in the form of fire) to create something like a skin sucking vacuum within the cup.
That sounds kind of unpleasant. Does it hurt?
It depends on the person. The experience of cupping can be likened to that of a deep tissue massage but in a very concentrated area like the back. It's meant to relieve tension so the requires some pressure, but it shouldn't be painful.
Okay. How does cupping help with pain?
"It's important to understand first that muscle pain can be a result of poor circulation to a specific area of the body," says Lavenita. "If you sleep on your neck a certain way and you wake up and have a hard time moving your neck because of pain, that usually indicates that there is constriction of blood flow there." So, cupping suctions up the skin and with it the fascia (basically a fancy word for connective tissue beneath the skin) to help any stagnation break up and let proper blood flow again to relieve the pain.
So is that where those big red dots come from?
Yes, exactly. "The marks left on the skin are actually called petechiae," says Lavenita.
Will they ever go away?
Definitely. "Basically cupping breaks the capillaries under the skin in that area but they regenerate in a matter of days and the marks fade similar to how a bruise or an actual hickey would," she says.
Let's back up to where you said cupping is good for colds. How?
"Part of the philosophy behind cupping is that the technique is good for drawing out impurities and toxins," says Lavenita. Colds are viruses, not bacterial infections, and require western medicine to help treat. "It's believed that viral infections like a cold or flu lie right beneath the skin so if you cup and suction the skin, it's going to come out with it," she explains.
That's a little hard to believe, no?
Cupping has been drawing skepticism for years, but so has most ancient eastern medicine. "We are very much accustomed to use doctors to point us in the right direction health-wise," says Lavenita. But really, there's a time and place for both eastern and western medicine. "If you have a heart attack, you don't schedule a cupping appointment," says Lavenita. "But for something like muscle tension and pain, it makes sense to follow in the footsteps who experience regular muscle tension does it not?"
Got it. Anything else I should know?
Cupping is most effective when used in conjunction with acupuncture. "Acupuncture allows for more flexibility and more precise application of relief," explains Lavenita. "You can absolutely do cupping on its own, but I highly recommend also having some acupuncture done simultaneously to get a full release of tension."