Is cupping therapy for you?


By Robert Wulforst

A colleague of mine asked me to write an article about the usage of “cupping” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, due to a misunderstanding they had with another medical practitioner. Generally, these misunderstandings have been more frequent with people trying to explain the “fads” of celebrities. If Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson do it, it must be safe, right?

What is Cupping?

First, let’s discuss what Cupping therapy is. The short, simple answer is that it’s a type of massage. It allows for easier blood flow through the muscles. From the vacuum created by suction inside the cup, it helps to break up tight muscle fibers. This action is improved by the movement of the cup around the muscle itself with oil. When done on the back, it helps to relieve strain on the Trapezius, Deltoid, and Latissimus Dorsi muscles. It can also be done on the calves, thighs, and biceps areas.

cupping therapy

Marks on the skin

One of the ugly side effects is that it leaves a dark welt on the skin. If the suction is too strong, you get this nasty looking bruise that can last for about a week. However, if Cupping was part of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) treatment, the practitioner sometimes would give the patient a small amount of topical medicine (herbal alcohol) called Diē Dǎ Jiǔ (Impact Wine - 跌打酒). This would help relieve any pain leftover from treatment and dissipate the bruise from cupping faster. A good friend of mine did an experiment on this. If you happen to get the chance, look up “Does Dit Da Jow work” on Youtube.

Fire Cupping v.s. Plastic Cupping

In the “old” days, the suction was created by lining the inside of the cup with some alcohol and lighting it on fire. It was immediately placed down on the patient in an area with oil or other liquid that would prevent air from getting in. You could probably get a slight burn if any of the alcohol was left over inside the cup when it was turned over, but this was very unlikely. It fact, the alcohol burns off so quickly that it may take a couple of tries to get a good seal.

Today, it is much safer as most practitioners use plastic cups with a pump that allows more control on how much of a vacuum there is. Some practitioners will do the fire cupping method for certain conditions, but they’re for a different set of circumstances.

Chinese Medicine Theory behind Cupping

The longer, more detailed answer about what cupping is in Traditional Chinese Medicine is that it helps to remove any stasis or stagnation of the Qì and blood. This follows the same idea as the short answer (massage), except it helps ease the flow of both Qì (氣) and blood through the body and the Acupuncture channels. That sounds highly technical, except it’s just another way of saying that the muscles are too tight to allow blood (and subsequently Qì) to pass through. Your body lets you know this is happening when you feel pain.

Think of stagnation/stasis like a blocked pipe. There may be some build up around the edges (Stagnation) and water might flow through, but not as well as it should. If you leave it alone, the buildup will increase and you might see water drain more slowly. Eventually, it’ll be completely blocked (Stasis) and water won’t drain until you remove the blockage. That’s when you break out the “Drain-o”.

Bloodletting and Cupping

Again, back in the “old” days, this blockage (stasis) would be removed with bloodletting. There is a cupping technique to prick the area that hurts, bleed it a little, and then use the cupping method on it. This technique is not really done often now, as there are a lot of other modalities you can use, such as the rubbing in Diē dǎ jiǔ, deep tissue massage, or Acupuncture. If the pain is chronic or stubborn for a decade or more, I have seen this technique used to good effect. However, in today’s society, seeing blood is viewed as if something “bad” has happened. This also includes the bruises left over from regular cupping.

So, should you try Cupping? It really depends on how you feel about it. It’s great on the back, especially when you sit for extended periods of time. Being hunched over a computer for days really put a strain on posture and causes a lot of the muscles in the back to tighten.

Some people just don’t like the idea of having several large bruises on their back, especially in warm areas where you might be sitting on a beach or at a pool. Aside from the bruised mark on skin, Cupping is a simple and non-invasive choice to loosen the muscle and increase the blood circulation, especially for cold body types. 

Finding a licensed acupuncturist will ensure Cupping is done properly. If cupping is not for you, I would then recommend Tuī Ná (Chinese Massage - 推拿) instead. It would make a good article for next time, as everyone loves massages!

About the author

Chung Ching Wu, aka Robert Wulforst, a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, is also the author of the book, "Root within the Wind", an overview of traditional Chinese Push hand exercise. See more at