We tried it for ourselves, and here’s what you need to know.
Medically reviewed by Dr Louise Wiseman MBBS, BSc (Hons), DRCOG, MRCGP and words by Becky Fletcher
Cupping has become increasing popular in recent years. At the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, many observers noticed some bruise-like marks on some of the athletes, including swimmer Michael Phelps, which were actually caused by cupping.
What is cupping?
The British Acupuncture Council describes cupping as ‘an age-old technique used in traditional Chinese medicine to stimulate acupuncture points or larger areas of the body.’
What are the benefits of cupping?
According to acupuncturist and bodywork therapist Emma Perris BSc (Hons) MBAcC, cupping is mainly used for muscle aches and pains, and general stiffness by boosting circulation. Some practitioners use it for things like headaches, and it can even be used on the abdomen and legs. The treatment is regularly practiced alongside acupuncture.
Does cupping really work?
Like acupuncture, cupping is not a scientifically proven technique – and solid research to prove its efficacy is currently limited. Some say – at best – cupping could be a profound placebo or some sort of counter irritation. However, alongside anecdotal reports, and professional athlete testimony, many claim that it is effective in easing aches and pains.
Perris explains that cupping works like a reverse deep tissue massage: “Massage works by pressing the muscles fibres to bring lots of fresh oxygenated blood to an area where it’s been starved and congested and a ‘knot’ or pain has developed. Cupping works by suctioning the tissue into the cup so the fresh blood can rush in underneath the cup.”
What is cupping really like?
Wondering what to expect from your first cupping session? Writer Becky Fletcher visited Perris at Neal’s Yard to try the technique for herself:
“After two leg-shakingly intense barre classes at London-based studio Heartcore and and long slog at the gym, I made my way to the therapy rooms with a sufficiently achy body and limbs. After being greeted by Emma, we sat down and had a thorough chat about my current and past health history in prep for my acupuncture and cupping treatments. She explained that, when a client comes in for acupuncture treatment, no stone is left unturned when it comes to the health of their body and mind.”
“After a quick massage and my initial acupuncture treatment that focused on my PMT (Emma specialises in fertility and women’s health), we moved on to cupping. The cups used in cupping are rounded and can be made of rubber, glass or even bamboo. In this instance, we used different sized glass cups and Emma created a vacuum inside it by setting some cotton alight in the glass, removing the lit cotton and then placing the cup on the skin…”
“…Cups are usually left in place on the skin for anywhere up to 30 minutes and several cups can be used at any one moment. For my treatment, Emma used a ‘sliding cup technique’ to release tension and knots in my shoulders and neck that had accumulated from sitting at a desk all day (and brief dalliance with the barre). As the cups glided over my shoulders, the sensation was oddly relaxing and the suction not uncomfortable as it pulled at my muscles. The only slightly unnerving sensation was the sound of the cotton being lit when you’re face down on the massage table. I was also left with no marks. As the duration and intensity of the treatment differs from client to client, Emma assured me that it’s pretty rare people leave with Michael Phelps-esque marks…”
The sensation was oddly relaxing and the suction not uncomfortable as it pulled at my muscles.
“…After the acupuncture and cupping, I was left feeling utterly chilled out. During the treatment, it had been the first time I hadn’t had a million thoughts racing through my head for weeks. Muscle tension in my neck and shoulders had eased. Emma explained that she expects patients to feel better after one treatment, but the general rule is the longer something has been going on the longer it takes to treat. Placebo or not, I found the treatment relaxing and walked away feeling less tense. It’ll be interesting to see whether any concrete research emerges in the future.”
Can cupping be dangerous?
Acupuncture and cupping should only be carried out by a professional or a member of the British Acupuncture Council.
Many doctors and scientists remain extremely sceptical about the process of cupping and the potential risks if used in the wrong hands. It is of note that Becky’s treatment involved a sliding technique and she was left with no bruising afterwards in the careful hands of Emma.
By the nature of the method used in cupping bruising can occur and capillaries in the suctioned area may be left broken. If this was repeated over the same area it could, in theory, be hazardous to skin health. Cupping is the subject of ongoing research though.
A systematic review in a respected complementary and alternative medicine journal in 2011 concluded that further research was needed to provide enough evidence that cupping helped with painful conditions. A more recent review suggested that although cupping reduced neck pain in patients and significantly improved function and quality of life because the studies reviewed themselves were so poor the doctors still could not make concrete conclusions.
It would seem that this is a question of waiting for more evidence and in the interim if you choose to try the procedure make sure it is with a recognised practitioner and you are fully aware of any potential risks.