Cupping is the application of a vessel to the skin of a client where a vacuum is induced in the vessel causing the skin to rise in the vessel and seal it against the skin. This decrease in pressure creates a vacuum which draws blood and lymph to the area. (Carrie Jones)

Cupping is a part of many traditional and folk medical systems around the world, found in Europe and Asia (Finland, Malta, Poland, Russia, Kazakstan, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, China) and the Americas. “Medical cupping glasses” were mentioned in Plato’s Timaeus (c. 360 BC), and in China, the earliest recorded mention is in a work written by the Taoist alchemist Ge Hong (281-341 AD).

Traditionally, cupping has been a static therapy. Within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cups are often placed on acupuncture points in a pattern specific to the issue. In the traditional western folk medical therapy for improving respiratory function, the cups are placed in rows down the back next to the spine for 10-20 minutes.

In June of 2009, in the course of some travels on the West Coast, I spent a week with Tamara Felix studying Mayan Massage, and one of the techniques that she taught me was flame cupping.

According to Rosita Arvigo, doctor of naprapathy who apprenticed to a Mayan h’men, the Mayans call their cupping technique ventosa, “Viento in Spanish means wind, and ventosa means pulling out the wind. Wind, or viento, is another name for muscle spasm and tissue congestion.”

With flame cupping, an alcohol soaked cotton ball is clamped in a hemostat. It is lit on fire and held inside an inverted glass cup for a few seconds to heat the air and create a vacuum, as the flame consumes the oxygen in the glass. Then the glass is quickly placed on the skin. It takes practice, because other than the selecting the size of the cup, the only way to regulate the amount of suction is to change the length of time the flame is inside the cup (the more oxygen consumed, the stronger vacuum), and how quickly you place the cup on the skin (while staying aware that it is possible to get the edge of the glass too hot from the flame).

Since 2009, I have acquired a manual vacuum cupping set and began experimenting with using it on some willing guinea pigs, gradually adding it to my practice. This set uses a hand pump to remove the air from inside a set of plastic cups. It is easier to control the amount of suction created, and allows a pulsing move that approximates lymph drainage, where suction is added and removed by how I pump and how I move the cup. I’ve learned that a number of other massage strokes can be imitated, from skin rolling to friction and cross-fiber strokes.

Cupping is fabulous for loosening unwanted adhesions in the superficial fascia, or between very shallow musculoskeletal structures (such as the Iliotibial Band) and the muscles beneath, allowing for freer movement. As the suction lifts the tissue up into the cup, it stretches muscle and connective tissue. The vacuum in the cup brings blood and lymph to the area, promoting circulation, clearing stagnation, and draining and moving fluids.

According to ACE Massage Cupping, the following conditions may respond to massage cupping: fibromyalgia, tissue and joint inflammation, sluggish colon, stagnant lymph and edema, poor circulation, sciatica, insomnia and general anxiety, sluggish devitalized skin, lung inflammation, cellulite, and toxicity.

Since cupping strongly invigorates the circulation, it is not appropriate for everyone. “Cupping is contraindicated in cases of severe diseases, i.e. cardiac failure, renal failure, ascites due to hepato-cirrhosis and severe edema, as well as hemorrhagic diseases such as allergic pupura, hemophilia and leukemia, and clients with dermatosis, destruction of skin, or allergic dermatitis. Cupping should not be applied on the portion where hernia exists or has occurred in the past. For pregnant women, the lower abdomen, medial leg and lumbosacral region should be avoided.” (International Cupping Therapy Association)

If you plan to receive cupping, you need to be aware of the possibility of “cup kisses”. A cup kiss often looks like a hickey. It’s a generally painless reddened area that takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days to fade. Cup kisses are a fairly likely result of static cupping, and, though less likely, can sometimes occur in moving cupping treatments, especially if a particularly congested area “grabs” the cup more strongly.

As Carrie Jones described, “It can truly look like you had a fight with an octopus for several days. Or you can have reddish rings from the edge of the cup that last a few hours. Or, if the cups are on too tightly, you can have bruising show up.” Therefore, “it is wise if you are going to be donning a swimsuit or evening gown that reveals parts of your body and you do not wish to be explaining what you have done that you do not engage in cupping at that time.”

What does cupping feel like?

While it can sometimes feel painful, like pinching, when it is the most active – for instance, if an area is particularly congested – for most people, cupping does not hurt. In fact, I have been able to use cupping in cases where other deep tissue methods were intolerably painful to the recipient. Mostly cupping feels like suction, as if you had put the hose of a vacuum cleaner on your skin and moved it around.

In my cupping sessions, I incorporate cupping with other manual therapy techniques, taking the opening the cup has provided, expanding the release, and reintegrating the area. If you are interested in knowing more, I would be happy to discuss this with you at any time.