The Latest Ancient Craze – Cupping!

Purple spots seem to be popping up everywhere!  For the past several years, they have appeared in Hollywood fashionable at various red carpet events.  We saw them on multiple athletes in the 2016 Summer Olympics.  People are wondering what they are, and do they hurt?  It’s the newest craze in complementary alternative care called cupping.

But wait, is cupping really a new idea?  Far from it!  Cupping has been a part of Asian medicine for over 2000 years. The practice of cupping is also mentioned in the ancient Egyptian medical text Papyrus Ebers from 1550 B.C.  In the West, there is evidence of cupping as a treatment for a variety of ailments such as headaches, musculoskeletal pain, respiratory problems, and yes, even snake bites as far back as Hippocrates and Galen.  It was a much-practiced form of intervention in folk medicine up until the early 20th century.  The cups themselves were fashioned from animal horns, shells, bamboo, and glass jars.

I remember none other than the founder of Irene’s Myomassology Institute, Irene Gauthier, often demonstrating this technique in massage class by lighting a candle on the client’s abdomen and placing a glass over the candle. As the candle burned, the flame used up the oxygen in the glass.  Then suction was created that literally pulled skin and tissue up into the cup.  Irene would then slide the glass along the skin to “move” the contents of the colon or to provide a “visceral lift” for the client.

Today there are more modern and convenient approaches available to us.  We have a variety of cups to choose from.  Traditionally, the process involves a glass that is heated inside using a flame and then placed on top of the skin, where it creates a vacuum and sucks the skin up into the cup.  This is called fire cupping.  There are also glass cups that use specially designed hand pumps to create suction. Silicon cups are also available and work quite well

The mechanics of cupping is fairly simple.  Oil is applied to the skin before the cup to help create a “seal” and to aid in moving the cup across the skin.  This is called “dry” cupping.  A suction force is created within the cup to draw tissues away from the body, creating a negative or pulling pressure. The pulling allows for the body’s tissues to lift and separate, increasing circulation of both blood and lymph and gently separating adhesions.  This is the opposite of most massage techniques, which compress the tissues into the layers below.

In Asian medicine, cupping is most often applied as a static force to meridian lines or injury sites.  These cups are applied to an area for up to 10 minutes.  The suction separates tissues, and the static pressure provides time for waste and stagnates energy to be brought to the surface.  This often results in a purple circle appearing on the skin.  Depending on the color and texture of the circle, assessments are made of a client’s overall health.  Some cups have tiny needles to stimulate acupressure points, and some cups have magnets to accomplish the same goal.  There is also a technique called wet cupping, which involves bloodletting that is NOT in a massage therapists’ scope of practice.

Athletes use cupping to address sore muscles.  The suction pulls the tight muscles and stretches the fascia, the connective tissue around the muscles, and in effect, allows blood vessels to expand.  As blood draws to the area it can speed recovery.  The capillaries that are drawn to the surface dilate. That’s what causes the purple marks that look like bruises.  The suction creates localized inflammation that can stimulate the immune system. It also stimulates nerves that can release neurotransmitters, endorphins, and perhaps cell repair.

Regular cupping that does not involve bloodletting, it is a great adjunct for a massage therapists’ practice.  The increase of circulation at the sub dermal level allows for more effective use of essential oils.  Also, as an effective fascial technique, pulling the cup along the skin’s surface is much easier on our bodies than pushing/stretching techniques or static holds.  Our clients find the technique soothing.  That answers the question, “Does it hurt?”  No!  Clients feel a warm pulling sensation, not unlike a hickey . . . at most, it can be mildly uncomfortable for some.

The medical community is quick with the disclaimer that there are no scientific studies proving what cupping really does.  However, research is being conducted reflected in the links below.  As reflected in its long history, one would draw the conclusion that cupping has benefits and it’s more than just a fad.  For anyone experiencing muscular pain of overuse whether you’re an athlete or not, it’s recommended to find a massage therapist who is trained in cupping and includes it in their repertoire.  Like most things, one should not overdo it.  It is recommended to only use cupping every couple of weeks at most.  If you are a massage therapist, take a class in cupping and discover the benefits for yourself.

Written by Jeanette Roach, Instructor at Irene’s Myomassology Institute

Cupping therapy: A prudent remedy for a plethora of medical ailments. J Tradit Complement Med. 2015 Feb 10;5(3):127-34. doi: 10.1016/j.jtcme.2014.11.036. eCollection 2015.

New is the well-forgotten old: The use of dry cupping in musculoskeletal medicine. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2016 Jan;20(1):173-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2015.11.009. Epub 2015 Dec 1.


Irene’s Myomassology Institute is a nationally accredited massage therapy school located in Southfield, Michigan.  Scholarships and Financial Aid are available for qualified students to help them pay school tuition.  Our students graduate with a state license prepared for a successful career as a massage therapist.  Irene’s lifetime job placement services maintains an abundance of massage career opportunities for our alumni.  Irene’s student massage clinic provides affordable massage to the public with discounted prices for seniors and veterans. Irene’s massage supply store equips massage therapists with the necessities to manage a successful career.