All About Cupping

Have you seen these people walking around town with dark circles all over them – like they were attacked by an octopus? Or maybe you’ve seen it on athletes on TV – like Michael Phelps? Why would they put themselves through that torture?

Believe it or, not cupping isn’t tortuous at all. And those dark marks don’t hurt a bit. It’s actually a remedy used in many cultures to treat pain, stress, chest congestion, and even to detoxify the body. Want to learn more? Keep on reading.

Cupping Works Great For Pain

If you’ve got pain – cupping will certainly be beneficial to you. It works most drastically on soft tissue, like muscles and connective tissue, so any type of muscle ache or knot responds quickly. However, even if your problem is more nerve related, or if you’ve got arthritis or spine/disk issues, I would consider cupping as part of a larger treatment protocol. In these cases, muscles are secondarily triggered, and cause an increase in pain over time.

Cupping works by lifting your skin and connective tissue (or fascia) up and “unsticking” it from your muscles. Fascia is the connective tissue that runs throughout your body. It wraps around each muscle fiber. It’s what your tendons and ligaments are made of. And it’s supposed to glide against other fascia fibers when you move. However, our fascia can get knotted up, or dried out, and it starts sticking to itself, like saran wrap. And this sticking can cause pain. Cupping is a great way to unstick it.

It Also Helps Release Stress

Are you the kind of person that holds your stress in your back, neck or shoulders? Then you are acutely aware of how stress can be held in your muscles. All those knots cause stagnation, both physically and mentally. Along with releasing the fascia, cupping can release the mental stagnation stored in those tissues.

Stop Coughs With Cupping

Another amazing thing that happens when suctioning cups onto your back is that it breaks up mucous in your lungs. I say amazing, because not in a million years would I have believed that cupping could work on such a deep, organ level. But I’ve seen it happen so many times now that I know it to be true.

Anyone who tends to hold on to mucous for awhile after getting sick should definitely remember to get cupping during the recovery process. Colds, flus, bronchitis, pneumonia, even whooping cough can all be treated with cups.

Get Rid Of Toxicity

The suction that cupping provides pulls fluids out of your cells to allow it to circulate. This includes all the junk hanging around in your tissues that causes inflammation. Now that the fluid (and gunk that it contains) is moving around, your body’s natural detox pathways, like your liver and kidneys, can strain out excess hormones, heavy metals, environmental pollutants, and other toxins.

This can be a great compliment to any detox program that includes herbs and diet changes, because it can pull out toxins that are lodged deeper in your body. The lighter diet and herbs/supplements that support your detox pathways (urination, defecation, sweating, etc) help to move those nasties out of your body so they don’t hang around and cause more problems.

How To Get Cupped

Now that you’ve decided you need to try this, I’m sure you’ve got a lot of questions. What exactly does it entail? What do I look for in a “cupper”?

To make matters confusing, there are a few different styles of cups. The traditional Chinese way is called fire cupping. The practitioner soaks a cotton ball in alcohol, lights it on fire, then places it inside a glass cup for a second to suck all the air out. When the cup is placed on the skin, suction is created. Because of the fire, you get a tiny bit of a warming to your muscles, which can be good if you tend to get cold. But if you’re sensitive to the amount of suction used, this might not be the best fit, since the amount of suction can’t easily be controlled.

Other practitioners use plastic suction cups. Each plastic cup has a valve on top, and a pump is used to suction it onto the muscles. This helps to control the amount of suction – lighter for more sensitive patients, and stronger to get deeper into the tissue. There’s also no risk of any damage from the fire.

There are also silicone cups, usually mostly for the face and other sensitive areas, and something called wet cupping, which punctures the skin and pulls blood out with the suction of the cups. Personally, I stay away form both fire and wet cupping to keep things safe for my patients, but there are highly skilled and trained acupuncturists that use both these methods with success.

While we’re on the topic, an acupuncturist is a great person to go to for cupping, as it is in our training and scope of practice under our licensure. Massage therapists and other health professionals sometimes perform cupping as well – just be sure to ask about their training to stay safe.


Elizabeth Williams is an acupuncturist in Greenville, South Carolina, specializing in pain management, women’s health, and psycho-emotional issues. She’s passionate about helping people feel their best and sharing her wealth of knowledge with the community. Elizabeth is the owner of Dragonfly Acupuncture and Massage, on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Appointments can be made by calling 864-451-4313, or scheduled online here.