Everything You Need to Know About Cupping

Cupping is suddenly all the rage in Brazil. Here’s what you need to know.

Thanks to a renewed interest in this ancient, thousands-year-old therapy, we’ve compiled answers to the questions that you need to know before jumping on the bandwagon, or not.

What is it? Not to be confused with the third-wave practice of coffee tasting, cupping therapy is a branch of traditional Chinese medicine dating back thousands of years. It involves lighting a fire inside glass cups to displace the air inside, and placing those cups on the skin of the treatment area to create suction which pulls the skin up — all in an effort to increase blood flow and circulation to help heal sore, tired muscles.

Does it hurt? The short answer is: usually. Several staffers here at Under Armour Connected Fitness have gone through it, and we can all confirm this. The tell-tale sign that someone’s undergone cupping is generally dark, round bruises at the area on the body where the treatment was applied. This is because cupping increases blood flow to the treatment area, where capillaries break — thus the purple welt. Practitioners claim that the darker the bruise, the more toxins you’re releasing. If done improperly, you could get burned, in addition to just getting bruised, which definitely hurts. So it’s important to consult a trained practitioner.

What’s the benefit? Here’s the snag: There are no conclusive studies showing any benefit, and most raise the question of the psychological benefit of a placebo effect. In some studies, like this recent one involving 60 patients with self-reported neck and shoulder pain, the half that received cupping therapy reported improvement compared to the group without the therapy. Another small study of a group of 75 patients with chronic neck pain and chronic lower back pain found acupuncture and cupping to be “efficacious in the immediate term.”

Says Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist Dr. Michael Joyner: “There is no evidence pro-con that shows cupping works or does not work. … There can be placebo effects for these sorts of things, and what I tell athletes is that if they think it helps and there are no downsides, then, if it feels good, do it.”

Who uses it? First, let’s start with who shouldn’t use it: patients with circulatory issues and pregnant women should definitely consult a doctor first. Otherwise, it’s common in China (just ask any Chinese grandma) and has been mainstream for many years. It’s prevalent in acupuncture and physical therapy offices as well as spas. Finally, a spectrum of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Justin Bieber have been seen sporting the trendsetting spots.

Have you done it? We want to know. Share your cupping therapy experience. Did it work for you?

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