What Is Cupping Therapy? Experts Explain This Ancient Wellness Ritual

It’s a game-changer.

by Natalia Lusinski
TCM cupping therapy

These days, there are so many wellness options to choose from if you’re feeling anxious or out of balance, and cupping is a big one. At this point, it’s likely you heard of the buzzy practice — but what exactly is cupping therapy? You may have seen it in an Instagram post, an image of someone’s back imprinted with little red suction cup-type marks. At first glance, it may make you cringe: It looks painful. But it’s actually a renowned wellness ritual that’s been around for centuries. Although historians don’t know cupping’s exact origin, it’s been documented in early Egyptian and Chinese medical practices as a treatment for various diseases. In this day and age, it’s used as a preventative health measure, as well as a way to treat a variety of health issues, including back and neck pain, headaches/migraines, carpal tunnel, inflammation, and even anxiety/depression (by removing toxins and pollutants).

Dr. Jenelle Kim, doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine and founder and lead formulator of JBK Wellness Labs, says that cupping therapy can feel like a deep tissue massage and be incredibly relaxing. “It is believed to promote healing and cleansing as toxins and other harmful substances are pulled from our muscles back into our bloodstream,” she tells TZR in an email. “They’re then filtered out of our bodies. It can also help ease and alleviate pain, and promotes better blood flow.” Many celebrities and athletes have jumped on the cupping bandwagon as well, including Kaley Cuoco, Michael Phelps, The Rock, and Lizzo. So how does it work? Ahead, experts explain so you’ll get a better understanding of it and may even want to try it for yourself.

How Cupping Therapy Works

Cupping therapy is exactly what it sounds like: Heated cups are put onto the skin for suction and they draw fluid into the treated area. This causes your blood vessels to expand and break open, and blood gathers in the area as part of the healing process for your body. Lijana Shestopal, licensed acupuncturist and founder of Sports Acupuncturist, explains further. “Cupping is typically performed by an acupuncturist, though chiropractors, massage therapists, and medical doctors may also perform it,” she tells TZR in an email. “Cups are often made of glass, but they are also sometimes made of plastic, bamboo, ceramic, metal, or silicone. In the procedure, the practitioner heats the inside of the cups using a cotton ball soaked with alcohol that has been lit on fire. The heat drives oxygen out of the cup and this creates a vacuum.”

She says the cups are then placed on your back, arms, stomach, legs, or other parts of the body, depending on your ailment. “The vacuum pulls the skin upward into the cup, and the cups are typically left on for about three minutes,” she says. “In some cases, the practitioner may move the cups to massage and stretch the area. The suction draws fluid to the area of skin inside the cup, which expands and breaks open capillaries, or tiny blood vessels, under the skin.” This is what causes the noticeable circular bruises that occur from cupping. “As a result, the body reacts and treats the area as an injury, sending more blood to the area to begin healing the damage,” she adds.

Kim adds that there is both “wet” and “dry” cupping. “Wet cupping is when the skin is also gently cut to release the blood,” she says. “Dry cupping does not involve any cuts and is the more popular approach trending today. And in traditional Chinese Medicine, there is also an emphasis on placing the cups on the correct meridians to properly promote the flow of qi and restore internal balance.”

Dr. Lana Butner, founder of Dr. Lana Wellness, says that the traditional method of creating suction uses heat from an open flame, while the more mainstream method uses a suction gun that attaches directly to the cups. “The suction causes the skin and superficial muscle to lift into the cup gently, resulting in a sort of inverted massage as the pressure acts in an upward direction,” she tells TZR in an email. “This allows for the lymphatic fluid to flow (or drain), which naturally gives a boost to your immune system.” She says this is why it can benefit athletes, too, as cupping provides a relaxing sensation in the way a deep massage does, releasing pent up tension and tightness. “It can be very useful in areas of the body that are sore or tight as a result of a tough workout, an injury, or even general stress,” she says. “The aim of applying this pressure is to open up and relax muscles, encourage blood flow to affected/tight areas, release toxins via the lymphatic system, and balance an overstimulated nervous system.”

If you have trouble sleeping, cupping can help with that, too, Butner says. It can also be an unexpected benefit if you feel you’re getting a cold. “It’s amazing for breaking up mucus, so when you are starting to feel a cold come on, this is a great therapy to turn to,” says Butner. Morgan Lee, registered nurse, licensed acupuncturist, and founder of the SoCal Life Center, agrees, saying it can alleviate a cough or congestion in the lungs. And he says a big benefit of cupping is that it can help all types of people. “Whether you are an athlete who pushed it too hard in practice, a business executive with a deadline, or worried about who is going to be picked for the next season of The Bachelor … cupping therapy can help release some of the tension being held in the muscles and tissue,” he tells TZR in an email. “Or maybe you want to speed up recovery or help release connective tissue to stretch deeper.” And although cupping typically leaves a bruise on the body, he says not to worry — they usually go away in seven to 10 days.

Shestopal adds that cupping marks are not only therapeutic, but diagnostic. “Usually the darker marks indicate a stagnation issue, meaning the circulation in that area was not proper,” she explains. “By using cupping therapy, the microscopic vessels get broken, which gives the circular mark. Once that happens, fresh blood gets into the area, bringing in oxygen and nutrients to nourish tissues, such as sore muscles.” She says this is why cupping is so great not only for sore muscles, but also to nourish injured tissue and to quicken recovery in cases of injury.

Shestopal says that although cupping has many benefits, it’s important to remember why we have pain and disease. “Most issues start with reduced circulation,” she says. “As the tissue (muscle, organs, ligaments, etsc.) is not getting proper oxygen and nutrients (which is what blood carries), the tissue starts to function improperly. As we improve circulation, the tissue is getting all that it needs to repair itself and is able to go back to its proper function; hence, reduced pain.” She says that is why cupping — combined with another treatment option, like acupuncture — is especially great, as acupuncture’s number one job is to restore proper circulation.

Potential Drawbacks To Cupping Therapy

Butner says one of the many great aspects of cupping is that it is low-risk. “There aren't many drawbacks to this therapy,” she says. “It does leave temporary marks on the skin, which is normal and should be expected after a session. Potential side effects can include skin discoloration, scarring, and worsening of pre-existing skin conditions, like eczema or psoriasis.” It’s also best to avoid cupping if you have a sunburn or open wounds, she adds. Kim, too, says that in general, if you are in good health, there should not be any drawbacks from cupping. “However, someone who takes a blood thinner might not be a good candidate for cupping therapy,” she says. “I always recommend consulting with your primary doctor first.”

Kim says that while Eastern medicine treatments are incredibly effective and powerful, not every therapy is right for every person. But the only way to figure out what is is to try a few and see what works best for you. Butner echoes this, saying that at her practice, they offer cupping to complement their acupuncture sessions for no additional charge. “It is a therapy that we love to use and have seen some great results from,” she says. However, it’ll come down to your personal preference and you may have to try a few sessions — of anything you choose — before you see what works best.