Cupping - How DO those marks get on the skin?

Cupping History

Evidence of cupping has been found in Egyptian pictorial records from around 1500BC with the practice then recorded as being taken up by the Greeks and on to the modern practice that is carried out today. However, despite its age, cupping is a less common form of therapy when compared to massage and acupuncture but has similar roots and methods of healing. Whereas a massage squashes tissues and muscles to force toxins and dead cells into the blood stream (to be removed by the liver and renal system), cupping can be considered a ‘reverse massage’, separating and lifting the tissues to pull toxins and dead cells up into the subcutaneous layers (skin), these are then removed by the lymph system. Cups can be used over acupuncture points and trigger points to release muscles or across whole meridian systems to stimulate the body’s energy flow and the combination of massage followed by acupuncture with cups placed over the needles is used to have a very strong healing effect on the body.

The lifting and separating effect is achieved by creating a vacuum inside a small glass or plastic cup (in modern practice) but in theory any receptacle that can maintain a vacuum can be used. The practice was originally carried out using hollowed out animal horns or bamboo cups and there are examples of street-side healers using cup-down plastic bottles for treatments. It is this vacuum action that sucks up the skin and tissues and also causes the tell-tale red spots on the skin. The force of the vacuum draws blood up from the body tissues and, more importantly, stagnant blood, toxins and old dead cells are drawn out with it. It is worth noting that the dark marks (which may also be yellow or green depending on the underlying issue – see ‘Visual cues to the cause’ further down) only appear where there is a problem. Cups placed on healthy areas of the body will go pink or even red whilst under the cup but will return to normal colour within minutes after the cup is removed, without leaving a mark. The marks are effectively the ‘junk’ that has been drawn out of the tissues and deposited in the dermal layer and will typically fade between 3-10 days, depending on the severity of the underlying problem and the effectiveness of the client’s movement on the lymph system.

Hot and Cold Cupping

Essentially these two methods result in the same effect with regard to creating the vacuum on the skin of the client, but each have benefits over the other depending on the situation and need.

Hot cupping uses a flame to create the vacuum in a thick glass cup. The cups are warmed over burning cotton wool that has been soaked in a flammable liquid (typically surgical spirit as it burns cleanly without soot or odour). When the cup is at an appropriate temperature the flame is quickly passed in and out of the cup and the cup is placed on the body, usually on oiled skin to help maintain the vacuum. Passing the flame into the cup burns the oxygen and heats the air and then, as the cup cools again whilst on the body, this air void creates the vacuum inside the cup.

Hot cupping is particularly useful for problems that are caused by cold, or made worse in cold conditions, because the warmth of the cup heats the area to be treated and the tissues beneath. It also helps to soften the tissues and facilitates the effect of the treatment. The strength of the vacuum is dictated by the depth the flame is inserted into the cup before application to the client; a shallow insertion will only create a weak vacuum, whereas reaching the flame to the base of the cup will create a strong vacuum. Hot cups are more difficult to place onto narrow or bony areas than cold cups because the cups need to be placed quickly before the vacuum is lost. Over bony areas it can be difficult to apply the cup first time although the practitioner can apply the cup to a nearby area and then move the cup into place afterwards (although this can be uncomfortable for the client). The other caution with hot cupping is the flame itself; the practitioner is well aware of the effect of fire on hair and clothing and will take every precaution to manage this risk, particularly on clients with thick body hair or in areas close to the head.

Cold cupping typically uses plastic cups with a pump attachment at the top. The vacuum is created by applying either a hand pump or electric pump to the top of the cup until the desired level of vacuum is achieved. This method allows for more precise application of cups, particularly over narrow or bony treatment areas as the vacuum is created with the cup already in place on the body. It also doesn’t carry the potential risks of using a live flame. Cold cups are also easier to transport as the cups are plastic instead of glass and no flammable liquid is required. However cold cups do not benefit from the heating action of the more traditional hot cupping and many practitioners prefer to use hot cups where the situation allows either method to be used effectively, or may use both methods at the same time.

Applications and benefits

As discussed, the vacuum action helps to lift and separate muscles and tissues that have become compressed, stuck or knotted. The action also draws in fresh blood through muscles and tissues from the vascular system which can help heal and restore areas where blood flow was previously limited or absent.

Cupping can be used as a static method to treat a specific area, or by ‘moving cupping’ to treat a larger area. Moving cupping does not usually produce the darker marks of static cupping but still has the benefits of a massage and is of particular benefit for treating the whole back, breaking down scar tissue and for cellulite removal. Moving cupping is also often used to identify likely problem areas that can be treated with stronger static cups later on.

Visual cues to the cause

As well as a healing therapy, cupping can be used as a diagnostic tool, with the marks that are left on the body not only showing the practitioner where the key problem areas are, but also suggesting what the underlying problem is:

  • Dark red or black marks; these show areas of stagnation and dead blood cells.

  • Yellow or green marks; show build-up of toxins in the area.

  • White or No colour; suggests a problem with the bone in that area. Whereas healthy skin and tissues will turn pink when a cup is applied to the area (but then quickly fade back to normal skin colour after the treatment) areas with local bone issues or disease will turn white.

  • Dips in the skin; these show where the underlying tissues are compressed or knotted together and need to be separated. This may also show old scar tissue and can be broken down and repaired with repeat treatments.

Once the problem areas are identified and the likely cause of the problem understood then the practitioner can use the treatment sessions to focus on the specific area where the marks showed until the skin appears normal beneath the cup and can also apply more specific methods or complementary treatments to help fix the underlying cause, such as the combined use of acupuncture.

With the intrigue from the Olympics and celebrity endorsement into this healing therapy this seemed like a good opportunity to explain what cupping actually is and how it helps.

© Total Therapy 2016.  Do not reproduce in any part on your own site without crediting and linking to this page.

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© Total Therapy 2016.  Do not reproduce in any part on your own site without crediting and linking to this page.