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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Quinn, LMT

Massage and Cupping: Traditional Medicine with a Modern Twist

Cupping therapy has been used historically by some of the most influential civilizations through ancient history. Its applications include pain management, circulation concerns, detoxification and immune system stimulation, and more.

Life can become very difficult when pain becomes all a person can think about. It’s disrupting to mobility, sleep, and can increase anxiety. Those suffering from chronic pain have just one of the indications that can benefit from the ancient practice known as 'cupping'.

Cups That Don't Runneth Over

As far back as 1550BCE, cupping as a form of medicine was practiced in such places as Egypt. Although their method was known as blood-letting which involved a vacuum suction while piecing the skin to draw out blood from local areas, it was a tradition used for pain. Such blood-letting is not done in most clinical applications today.

But its use was not just limited to ancient Egypt. Greece was also known to use a form of cupping around 400BCE while ancient Chinese and Arabian healers used forms of cupping to purify and restore blood so as to be free from disease. Historical documents show the ancient Chinese used cupping for many different ailments like gout, sinus infections, aches and pains, as well as difficult births.

Similarly, it’s been known to be used to draw blood away from animal bites and for removal of foreign matter through the suction and blood-letting.

What is Cupping in the Modern Sense?

Basically, cupping therapy in terms of massage is a form of 'myofascial decompression'. The cup creates a suction against the skin. Historically, the way to create that suction was with fire: a flame that’s used to heat the inside of the cup and uses up the oxygen in that cup, which is then placed against the skin making a seal. As it cools, a vacuum occurs. This vacuum has a stimulatory effect.

The cups are made of either glass, plastic (polycarbonate), or silicone, the last two of which are considered a more safe way to perform this therapy. These types of cups are often used with a mechanical hand-held device which seals the cup to the skin, bypassing the need for any flame.

There are many theories as to how therapeutic cupping creates results. Some of the big possibilities are that there is a nervous system response which then triggers both circulatory and soft-tissue responses. The nervous system is where we experience and perceive pain and it can control the resting tones of the muscle. Some researchers believe that lighter cupping techniques use the gate- control theory to inhibit pain while deeper styles of cupping may use a different system, called 'descending modulating'. This means cupping causes the release of endocannabinoids to anesthetize tissue and the nervous system in general. Further research is needed on the topic in order to understand how cupping impacts the nervous system.

Despite cupping's wide potential uses, it does have several situations where it is generally not advised to be done. Foremost among these is for patients who are prone to bleed, especially those who suffer from diseases such as leukemia, hemophilia, capillary fragility and so on. Other scenarios when cupping should be avoided include when there is damaged skin or dermatogic disease, contagious skin disease, serious skin allergies, ulcerated sores, open wounds, bone fractures, sites of deep vein thrombosis, directly on veins, arteries, nerves, any skin lesion, body orifices, eyes, lymph nodes, or on varicose veins.

The content and any recommendations in this article are for informational purposes only. They are not intended to replace the advice of the reader's own licensed healthcare professional or physician and are not intended to be taken as direct diagnostic or treatment directives. Any treatments described in this article may have known and unknown side effects and/or health hazards. Each reader is solely responsible for his or her own healthcare choices and decisions. The author advises the reader to discuss these ideas with a licensed naturopathic physician.


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