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One of the therapies employed by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cupping is a powerful, manual technique for breaking up localized congestion. While it does require some additional training, cupping is within the scope of practice for most practicing massage therapists. Armed with expert guidance and a basic understanding of TCM theory, bodyworkers can deliver a deep, therapeutic cupping treatment while giving their hands a respite from the rigors of their profession.

What is Cupping?

Originally practiced to drain toxins from snakebites and skin lesions, cupping began by using hollowed out animal horns to suck poisons out of a recipient’s skin. As more was learned about human physiology, the therapeutic applications of cupping were applied to an increasing number of health conditions. Accompanying the progression of this therapy, the cups originally crafted from horns evolved to bamboo, then glass and sometimes plastic.

Records have proven that ancient cultures of China, Greece and Egypt regarded cupping as a medical practice as early as 28 A.D. Over the years, practitioners have relied on cupping’s strong suction to increase circulation for:

  • Tightened or painful muscles
  • Sprains or strains
  • Pinched nerves
  • Lung congestion
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Inflamed breasts
  • Lactation dysfunction
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Cough
  • Asthma

Cupping Variations

There are several cupping variations within a massage therapist’s scope of practice:

  • Fire Twinkling Method – The practitioner clamps, then ignites a piece of alcohol-soaked cotton, places the flame into a glass cup, removes it quickly, and then inverts the cup onto the skin. Because the flame consumes the cup’s oxygen, a strong suction is created.
  • Suction Pump Method – Usually composed of plastic, these cupping sets allow the practitioner to use a pump to remove oxygen from the cup, thus creating suction.
  • Stationary Cupping – This is when a cup is applied to a specific, congested location and left there for up to 15 minutes.
  • Running Cupping – This is when plenty of lubricant is applied to a broad area, a cup is adhered to the body, and then moved around without breaking the seal. Massage therapists can mimic several types of massage strokes by working with this technique.

Cupping Theory

Cupping is known for its ability to break up localized stagnation. Cupping is reputed to:

  • Drain excess fluids and toxins
  • Loosen adhesions
  • Lift connective tissue
  • Enhance circulation in stagnant musculature and fascia
  • Stimulate the peripheral nervous system

In terms of TCM theory, the stagnation can be of just about any type: blood, toxins, qi or dampness. The suction created by cupping draws stagnant toxins, heat, energy or fluid out of where it has accumulated and brings it to the body’s surface. Once under the skin, the offending culprit can more easily be eliminated via the body’s waste removal systems.

Based on cupping’s most popular applications, the following conditions benefit from stagnation dispersal. For clarity, this is further broken down by stagnation type:

  1. Blood Stagnation – Injuries, adhesions, menstrual irregularities
  2. Stagnant Toxins – Gastrointestinal disorders, rigid muscles, breast inflammation
  3. Qi Stagnation – Muscular pain, dysmenorrhea, pinched nerves
  4. Fluid Stagnation – Lung congestion, asthma, lactation dysfunction

Once an adhesion or congestion is pulled away from its source, fresh blood, energy and fluids rush in to expedite healing. Besides sparing the practitioner’s hands from demanding physical labor, this dramatic increase in circulation makes cupping a valuable complement to bodywork. By learning about TCM stagnation theories and becoming practiced in the art of cupping, massage therapists have a unique and effective tool to bring their clients closer to their health goals.

For more information about cupping, look for the upcoming article, “Cupping for Massage Therapists: Part II.”

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