The Magic of Cupping Therapy By Serra Reid, LAc, Dipl.O.M.
Cupping is a very effective but under-utilized healing technique. It is quick and simple to administer (once you get the hang of it), promotes detoxification, invigorates qi and blood, clears wind/damp/cold/heat stagnation in local skin and muscle tissue, regulates various aspects of the autonomic nervous system…and patients usually enjoy the experience of tension melting away under warm cups!
BENEFITS OF CUPPING THERAPY
Cupping is very effective applied locally to promote proper circulation of qi and blood and reduce swelling at or near the site of an acute injury (ankle, shoulder, back strain/sprain). It can also be used to relieve stagnation of qi and blood in areas that chronically “hold” pain, like old injury sites, areas around surgical scars, or areas of occupational overuse.
There are various different techniques of cupping, involving different levels of suction, heat, and duration of therapy. Stationary cups are typically placed on the patient in an area of local stagnation with a medium level of suction for 10-15 minutes. Timing and level of suction should be adjusted depending on the type of tissue or structure which is being treated…for example, cups placed on SI 11 should be of mild suction and left only 10 minutes, whereas cups placed on UB 23 or 25 produce best results if left on 15 minutes with a stronger level of suction.
Sliding cups are very well tolerated (and usually enjoyed) by patients, since the movement along long muscles of the back (quadratus lumborum, paraspinals) or muscle groups associated with movement of arms (trapezius, rhomboids, deltoids, lats) feels like deep massage. The warmth and suction of the cups helps instantly relax muscles as blood is perfused through tissue, fascia and tendons. Apply a light layer of massage oil or cream to the skin and use long, continuous strokes of the cups over tensed areas. Focus repeat passes over areas that become brighter or more intensely colored than other nearby tissue. If there is deep stagnation in the tissue, granules of “sha” (sand-like, crystallized metabolites that have deposited like silt in tissue) will come up through the tissue to the superficial skin layer to be released through the circulatory system. This is a positive sign of an effective detoxification response by the body -- and it is usually much better tolerated by patients than a classical guasha treatment.
Flash cupping is a third technique that is often used in concert with either stationary or sliding cup treatments. The cup is repeatedly warmed and applied to the skin, removed rapidly with a “pop” of suction, and reapplied several times to the same site to quickly invigorate qi and blood and release trapped damp, wind, heat or cold that may be blocking the interstices of the skin – a.k.a. releasing the exterior. This technique is very effective for prevention and regulation of wind-cold or wind-heat patterns (for example, cups applied to UB 12 and 13, Du 14, Dingchuan, GB 20 and 21), as well as for stimulating movement of qi and blood in specific organ systems (flash-cup UB 13 to relieve dampness or phlegm stagnation of the Lung; treat UB 20, 23 and Du 4 to boost Spleen and Kidney qi).
Care must be taken that the cup lip does not get too hot during process of repeated heatings and applications of flash-cupping…usually, after 4- 5 applications in rapid succession, the cup lip can become too hot and should be allowed to cool if repeated flash-cupping treatment is necessary. Deep-lying cold or damp may require a second treatment to properly clear…check the surface of the cupped skin with your hand in between applications to ascertain whether cold or damp is still present in the tissue…you will quite literally feel the cold or damp emanating from the cupped skin, and it is important to keep flash-cupping to completely clear the area of that stagnation.
There are of course areas that should not be cupped, most often due to the fact that it is difficult to safely cup the surface due to the topography or the structures of the body. Basic contraindications also include: do not cup directly over broken skin, purulent/damp skin rashes, hematomas or cysts.
Current general opinion is that cupping should not be used to treat the low back or abdomen of pregnant women, due to the possibility that through its actions on regulating the autonomic nervous system, cupping may stimulate uterine contractions, which may potentially negatively influence a high-risk pregnancy. There are mixed opinions amongst practitioners on that subject… as well as whether it is safe or appropriate to cup to treat shingles or to cup near the site of a herniated disk, for example. Usually it is better to err on the side of caution in these instances.
Patients should be properly informed (before treatment) about the potential for cup marks…temporary discoloration of the skin that may range from pale brown to darker red/purple depending on level of stagnation and whether the condition is of a deficient or excess, hot or cold nature. It is important to ask if the patient is planning any imminent outings to the beach or pool, or will be wearing clothing that shows the surface of the area of cupping, and to discuss how cup marks may appear odd to others who are not aware of the healing technique. It is also important to note that cupping should not typically produce true bruises if administered correctly, as it does not break the skin -- cup marks are evidence of the removal of toxins trapped in the muscle and skin layers. Patients should also be informed that the areas of cupping should be protected from cold, wind, or water for the rest of the day after treatment.
Cup marks usually fade within a day or two. Keep in mind that the length of time that cup marks persist usually reflects the level of circulation of blood in each patient’s system and the ability of their body to properly detoxify. Remember also that patients whose skin is congenitally thin or has thinned due to advanced age require a much gentler application of cupping. Similarly, cupping of the abdomen is technically difficult and usually uncomfortable for the patient due to thinness and looseness of skin in the area.
There are plenty of reputable sources on the Web to further research different applications and contraindications of cupping therapy, as well as making sure you are using the safest materials and practices...i.e., use 90% alcohol to create the cleanest most consistent flame, use high quality 100% cotton balls to make sure that pieces of flaming cotton do not fall off your hemostat. Gaining more confidence in cupping can only be achieved through more practice…take every opportunity you can to practice and refine your technique. Get cupping yourself so that you have a clearer idea of what it feels like with different levels of suctions and on different areas of the body.
Targeted Applications of Cupping Therapy:
To clear acute or chronic damp/phlegm stagnation in the lungs: flash-cup UB 11 to 13. Cupping Lung 1 and 2 is also very effective, but should only be practiced by a more experienced cupping practitioner, since proximity to patients’ faces and visual field requires greater confidence and advanced technique.
To strengthen Kidney qi, leave stationary cups over UB 23 and Du 4 for 10-15 minutes.
To stimulate sluggish bowels or regulate spastic colon (IBS), place cups over UB 25, or slide cups repeatedly between UB 23 and 27.
To treat GYN pain or irregularities, cup over sacrum and low back.
To treat sciatica or sacroiliac pain, cup over sacrum and GB 30 and environs.
To expel wind/cold and relieve neck pain, pass sliding cups between GB 21 and LI 16, UB 11 to 13, and SI13.
To treat Liver qi stagnation and help clear depressed Liver heat, flash-cup or place stationary cups on UB 18 and 19, or pass sliding cups along the flanks and costal area.