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Traditional massage techniques employ the use of the massage therapist’s hands to compress tissue and push out blood and lymph from an area, allowing the body’s natural ability to pull fresh blood into the space. By contrast, cupping methods create a negative pressure, or suction, on the skin that pulls up tissue and actively draws blood and other fluids close to the surface. This pulling action on the body engages the parasympathetic nervous system and induces a deep relaxation. Done correctly, cupping can be an effective complementary technique when used in conjunction with massage therapy.

Cupping is a process in which suction is used to relieve local congestion. The suction is created by various methods, using either heat or mechanical means to create a partial vacuum, which draws blood and other fluids closer to the surface of the skin allowing the body to rid itself of toxins more easily.

The suction can be light, medium or strong depending on whom it is used and which tools are utilized. For example, light cupping or suction is appropriate for children and the elderly, while strong cupping is contraindicated for them. There is also massage cupping, sometimes referred to as moving cupping, which uses a weak suction with the cups sliding across an oiled body surface, such as the back. Needle cupping is used by acupuncturists who use acupuncture needles first and then place the cups over the area being treated. The variations of cupping are almost as numerous as those who practice this ancient technique.

A Brief History

Cupping, as it is known now, has been used for at least 2,000 years. By some accounts it goes back as far as five centuries, as indicated by the Ebers Papyrus, believed to have been written around 1500 B.C.E in Egypt. It is theorized to have been copied from various other medical texts dating back to 3400 B.C. The earliest modern day recorded use in China is from the Taoist herbalist Ge Hong (circa 281 A.D. – 341 A.D.) In ancient times it was used to draw toxins, such as snakebite venom, out of the body. Later it was used in China as a way to divert blood away from surgical incisions. The names for the process, such as horning, needlehorn, fire-cupping and boiling bamboo cylinder, are an indication of the materials once used in the procedure. In Europe and the Americas as early as the 18th century and into the 20th century, cupping was used at home to ease the congestion of respiratory illnesses. Common household drinking glasses were often used in the technique. Until modern day allopathic methods took over the field of medicine in the 1940s, medical supply catalogs still offered cupping sets to doctors.

While many practitioners still use traditional tools in cupping, modern technology has brought some changes to this ancient instrument. Today’s cups are usually made of glass, though some are plastic. Some now have soft squeezable bulbs at one end of the cup, while others can be attached to machinery that creates the suction. These methods help to avoid the dangers of using heat and fire to depressurize the cups.

Indications for Use

Cupping can be used for many pathologies, most of which are considered to be caused by stagnation or congestion of energy, blood or mucus as categorized by TCM. These include, among others:

  • Back pain
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Headaches
  • Respiratory disorders, such as colds, flu and asthma
  • Constipation and diarrhea
  • Arthritic conditions
  • Insomnia
  • Edema
  • Adhesions

There are also several conditions in which cupping should not be used, such as pregnancy or on clients with hemorrhagic diseases like leukemia or hemophilia; nor should it be used on inflamed or broken skin, or if the client has a fever. Cupping is not very effective on areas of the body where there is a lot of hair or angular areas. It is most effective on large smooth areas of the body, such as the back or thigh.

The heated cups (or cups with vacuum pumps) are placed over the afflicted areas of the body or over related acupressure points. They are left in position for five to 15 minutes, depending on the strength of the suction. Bruising and, occasionally, blistering, following the shape and size of the cup will generally occur where, practitioners claim, the worst of the congestion has been negatively affecting the body.

Practitioner Cautions

If you decide you would like to offer cupping to your clients make sure you receive the proper training. It takes time and practice to administer this modality correctly. Make sure to check with your licensing board to see if cupping is within your scope of practice or if there are any restrictions. Some jurisdictions restrict massage therapist’s use of certain types of tools, especially if they use any kind of mechanical device.

Cupping is a simple yet powerful form of alternative healing. If performed correctly it can be a wonderful form of complementary therapy. If done incorrectly it can at the least be ineffective or, worse, it can cause negative results. Make sure to receive proper training before using it on your clients.

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