Olympic swimmer with cupping marks preparing to race; the dark marks in this photo are most likely due to build up of lactic acid and consistent exposure to chlorine

Olympic swimmer with cupping marks preparing to race; the dark marks in this photo are most likely due to build up of lactic acid and consistent exposure to chlorine

Cupping is an extraordinary technique that has been passed down for thousands of years and continues to be widely used across many cultures by both professionals and lay people alike. I have had patients from Poland and Russia tell me stories of their grandmothers using the therapy when they were sick. I became particularly excited to see it being used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

When toxins or cell waste stagnate in the muscles or joints, the body has a difficult time with waste disposal and we often experience this as discomfort or pain.

This kind of stagnation can occur for any number of reasons; injuries that never fully healed may create scar tissue and poor circulation in a localized area which creates site specific pain. You can expect some dramatic colors to appear with coloring if:

  • the issue is chronic
  • there is a history of either recreational or prescription drug use
  • you are eating more animal protein than your body can adequately tackle
  • candida or other parasite infection is present
  • you're being exposed to environmental toxins such as black mold
  • you've gone through a particularly traumatic emotional event
  • you're in a period of life where you're feeling particularly "stuck" 

When our liver or kidneys aren't able to process these insults to the system and excrete them correctly, the toxins are put into storage to be managed at a later time - and they're usually housed in the muscle layer. The vacuum action of cupping rapidly facilitates the release of rigid soft tissues, stimulates the peripheral nervous system, loosens and lifts connective tissues, breaks up and drains stagnation. It also increases blood and lymph flow to skin, muscles, and connective tissues. It does all of these things far more rapidly and effectively than any other type of therapy, including acupuncture, massage, chiropractic adjustments, medications or even surgery.  

Cupping draws stagnant blood and other fluids that has fallen out of healthy circulation up to skin the level and away from the injury so that healthy free circulation can be restored to the affected area. Being that skin is the body's largest organ, it contains about 20% of your blood volume at any given time. The skin has a beautiful network of capillaries that make it a fantastic vehicle to transport all the stagnation that cupping pulls up into it. Cupping creates a space for oxygen, living cells, and nutrients needed for healing. The body’s capillary system at the skin level carries the toxins to the liver and kidneys, where they can be metabolized and excreted.


Why Would Anyone Do This?

  • Cupping is an excellent diagnostic method. We can use cupping to better understand whether the problem is toxin build up, muscle spasm, or something else. A nerve or bone issue will not produce any significant color change. 
     
  • Cupping demonstrates the exact location of the problem since we usually cup an area larger than the pain center to guarantee everything is covered. The area with the most significant amount of stagnation will have the deepest amount of color. Even the area directly under a single cup will show variation where a small part may color while the rest does not.
     
  • Cupping will tell us the severity of the problem. Moderate blockages cause the skin to become pink or red and generally take only take a day or two for the color dissipate. Severe stagnation will produce a deep scarlet, purple, or even black discoloration which may take seven to ten days for the dark color to disperse.
     
  • Cupping can be used to help detox. Sometimes symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, or headaches could be a symptom of toxic overload that your body is trying to manage. If you've been on medications long term, you need to be gentle with cupping because it will reintroduce substances locked in the muscle layer and you want to ensure your liver can properly breakdown anything that comes its way.

Cupping Marks 

It's a common misconception, however, the marks left by cupping are not bruises. 

Bruising is caused by impact trauma leading to breakage of capillaries and a reactionary rush of fluids to the damaged location from the tissue injury. There is no compression in cup therapy. The marks are the result of having internal unwanted toxins pulled up to the skin. 

When a condition exists within a deeper muscle layer and is dredged up during treatment, discoloration will appear on the skin. As treatments cumulate and even though each time the cupping may focus on the same area, for the same duration, with the same amount of suction - less discoloration will appear over time. 


How long will the marks last? 

I advise patients to hope for an hour but prepare for 3 weeks.

The more severe or chronic an issue, the deeper the color, the longer the marks stay with you. Therefore, I also advise patients to review their social calendar (e.g. any weddings or beach vacations coming up?) before they receive cupping so that we can schedule their session accordingly. 

The dramatic marks seen on swimmers in the Olympics, though true athletes and healthy, most likely come from lactic acid build up in addition to the toxins they're exposed to from long hours in chlorinated pools. If they were on a less regimented exercise schedule out of the pool, the cup marks may not have been as entertaining.


Does cupping hurt?

Cupping creates a unique sensation that doesn't compare to anything you may have experienced before.

Because of natural suction, there is a pulling sensation at the skin and muscle layer that results in a tight feeling under the cups. The first few minutes can be rather intense, but most patients enjoy the endorphin rush that comes with cupping. In the method I employ, the cups are left on only long enough to generate color - which means the entire application and removal of the cups generally lasts 15 minutes. Though fire cupping is popular throughout Asia and parts of Western Europe, I prefer to use Korean vacuum pumps for several reasons: 

  • The risk of burns becomes non-existant
  • Consistent suction can be created
  • The suction can be controlled by adjusting the pump itself rather than pulling at the skin

Vacuum pump cups applied to a patient's back

Prepare to be Cupped! 

Below are a few things to take into consideration and do ahead of time before coming in for your cupping session: 

  • Eat something prior to your session. Being cupped on an empty stomach may cause dizziness or nausea.
     
  • Know your upcoming social schedule; rethink whether  cupping marks showing above a strapless dress line are appropriate or not if you have an upcoming wedding to attend. Discoloration can last anywhere from 1 hour to 3 weeks - it's difficult to predict what will happen, especially if it's your first time. 
     
  • Bring clothing that can cover the area where you were cupped. Following the session you will want to ensure  exposure is kept to a bare minimum. You should bring a scarf, sweater, hoodie, or jacket as cover-up.

After Care

Everyone reacts to cupping a little bit differently, so it's important to give your body a chance to recuperate after the experience.  Some patients feel ready to run a marathon while others may experience fatigue, soreness, or even mild headaches. Either way, please take note of the following: 

  • Keep the cupped area covered, warm, and free from any drafts following your treatment.  Cupping opens the surface of the body, therefore temperature extremes (especially cold or wind) can trigger the muscles to go into spasm or tighten up. You need to be sure to keep the area protected and avoid activities such as hot tubs or cold showers. Warm baths are acceptable if you can avoid leaning back into the tub where the area may be put up against cold ceramic.
     
  • Drink plenty of water! Since toxins have been released back into your system, be sure to drink plenty of fluids to help your body flush them out. 
     
  • Over-the-counter pain relief medication such as Tylenol or Advil in small doses are generally acceptable to manage any lasting discomfort.
     
  • Avoid alcohol or other toxic substances for at least 48 hours following the session. Your liver is working hard to process what has been reintroduced into the system; don't make it work any harder than it has to. 
     
  • Take it easy! Healing happens in the quiet moments we create; so avoid strenuous activity. Give yourself permission to take down time to recuperate.  

If you are still experiencing physical discomfort after 3 days, please contact me. There are herbal remedies, both topical and oral, that can help provide assistance to your body to alleviate the discomfort and expedite the healing process if necessary.