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Cupping 101: What It Is, How It Works, and What to Expect From Your Session

April 8, 2021
Wellness

An essential part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, cupping is a therapy with many benefits. The wellness experts from WellQuarters are here to answer your FAQ's.

As an essential component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cupping has been practiced throughout parts of Asia for several millennia. Though we are still coming to understand the mechanisms behind its effectiveness, studies have shown this useful therapy to have numerous benefits. With this growing evidence and low risk profile, the popularity of cupping has expanded greatly in modern medicine, worldwide.

Cupping is often performed in conjunction with acupuncture, but it also stands alone as a powerful and effective solo treatment—for both pre-existing ailments and preventive care. According to the CDC, preventive strategies have the potential to greatly reduce the incidence of chronic illness, as well as related disabilities and deaths. And with the dramatic increase in chronic illness cases over recent years, preventive care has become especially vital for patients of all ages. 

Prevention is the backbone of WellQuarters, the wellness arm of HealthQuarters. For you, that means fewer sick days, fewer injuries, fewer trips to the emergency room—and more of the good stuff.

What is cupping?

The practice of cupping involves the application and maneuvering of suctioning cups, each of which creates a vacuum against the skin. These cups are typically made of glass, plastic, or silicone; and they can be used on dry skin, with oil, or even with fire! This treatment is most commonly used to relieve pain and tension, but it is helpful in treating an array of conditions, as well as effectively promoting general wellness and balance.

What conditions has cupping been shown to benefit?

Widely used to treat a range of health conditions, cupping has most recently been popularized by its utilization in sports medicine–specifically among top Olympic athletes including Michael Phelps. This modality is known to help improve athletic performance, as well as to prevent and heal musculoskeletal pain and injuries. The process works to manually increase blood flow and circulation, reducing inflammation as well as all different types of chronic and acute pain—particularly in the neck and back

Due to its ability to relax targeted muscles, cupping is able to effectively mitigate spasms, including those that block a healthy supply of blood and oxygen from reaching the brain. For this reason, numerous studies have demonstrated that those suffering from migraine and tension headaches experience a considerable decrease in both frequency and pain severity following treatment. 

In addition to its anaesthetic and anti-inflammatory effects, cupping is useful in boosting immunity and treating autoimmune conditions. Cupping has also shown to significantly improve symptom severity in patients suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, and gout—to name a few. One randomized clinical trial concluded that cupping was just as effective as medication for management of pain and stiffness caused by arthritis. Patients with diabetes even experience a significant reduction in blood sugar following treatments.

Along with improving blood flow, cupping is proven to stimulate the autonomic nervous system—which is responsible for the function of internal organs—restoring balance and supporting heart health and digestion. There is a proven correlation between cupping and elevated blood oxygen levels, which is especially beneficial for patients with certain blood disorders (such as anemia) and for patients with conditions affecting the lungs or respiratory system, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). For this reason, cupping is commonly used to prevent and relieve cold and flu symptoms.

When used to stimulate the lymphatic system, cupping is quite effective in the reduction of toxins, hormonal imbalances, and fluid retention. It has shown to often outperform medication in the treatment of shingles, acne, and other skin conditions. Beyond medical use, cupping has grown in popularity as a beauty treatment–beloved for its anti-aging effects and ability to minimize the appearance of scars, stretch marks, cellulite, varicose veins, and even wrinkles.

This treatment focuses on increasing blood flow to remove both physical and emotional stagnation. For this reason, it is unsurprising that patients commonly report lower levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even fatigue after cupping sessions. Due to the calming effect on your nervous system, it is possible that you will experience an increase or decrease in energy, during or after your appointment. You might also feel a rush or release of emotion. This is completely normal, and a healthy part of your body’s healing process.

As is true of most of our holistic treatments, the goal of a cupping session is to bring complete balance to the body and mind in the most natural possible way. This treatment is a safe option for most patients who have adverse reactions to medication or are worried about medication interactions with other treatments. Whether you’re looking for relief from a specific ailment or you just want a general health boost, cupping very likely has something to offer you!

What does it feel like? What should I know?

Don't be scared off by the purple circles! Cupping should not be a painful experience. In fact, many patients find that it feels a lot like a massage. That said, the sensations you experience will be dependent upon several factors—such as your individual condition, area of treatment, and goals for your session.

At WellQuarters, your practitioner will use either silicone cups—which attach by simply squeezing and then releasing in order to form a vacuum on the skin—or glass cups, which are usually warmed with fire before being positioned in place, creating a natural suction as they cool. You will feel a brief tightness as the cup is attached, but this should quickly fade. During your treatment, the cups may be moved around on the skin, left in place for a more extended period of time, or used repeatedly in the same place for shorter durations. Your practitioner will check in with you to make sure that you remain comfortable throughout the process.

Cupping is most frequently performed on the back, but other areas can also be treated. For instance, your practitioner will focus on your abdomen to remedy digestive issues, on your head and neck for migraines, or on your arms for carpal tunnel syndrome. Pain is often treated locally, but related acupoints are sometimes treated on other parts of the body. Acupoints around the spine are often addressed in order to stimulate different acupoints that relate to specific organs in the body.

Facial cupping uses a gentle technique that should not cause any discoloration, but body cupping—especially on the back—often leaves behind some temporary circular marks. These are not the same as typical bruises, however, and should not cause you any pain. When you leave your appointment, you will likely be feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

What is the experience like? How long will it take? 

When you arrive and check in at HealthQuarters, you will be welcomed by one of our Care Guides. At this point, we recommend using the restroom if you need to. Your Care Guide will lead you into the WellQuarters area, where you will meet your practitioner and be shown to your treatment room. 

Once you’re settled in, your practitioner will go over your medical history and treatment goals. This will likely include taking your pulse and examining your tongue—this is a key diagnostic method, so please don’t scrape it before your appointment! It is important that you be open with your practitioner about any medical conditions, injuries, pain, and sensitivities. You are always encouraged to communicate about preferences, comfort levels, and any concerns that you may have, before and throughout your treatment. After your brief intake session, you will be left alone to undress (underwear can remain on, but let your practitioner know if you would prefer to wear more clothing and we can work to accommodate your comfort levels) and relax beneath the fresh sheet on the massage table.

When your practitioner returns, your treatment will begin. Depending upon your treatment plan or preference, either glass or silicone cups will be positioned on your area(s) of treatment. The number of cups utilized varies, but fewer cups are sometimes used on patients who are more sensitive or new to cupping. Your practitioner might plan to use warm massage oil to reduce friction on your skin, so make sure to mention any allergies. 

If your appointment involves stationary cupping—meaning that the cups are left in place for a little while—you may be left alone to relax. You will be given the option to be checked on part way through your treatment and you will have a bell to ring in case you need help at any other time. Lights are typically dimmed and soft music is played to optimize your relaxation, but feel free to let us know if you prefer quiet. 

Cupping appointments at WellQuarters generally last about 20 minutes. If you have any additional treatments included in your session—such as acupuncture, ear seeding, moxibustion, or gua sha—those may be done simultaneously, before, or after cupping. This could add to duration, so give us a call in advance if you need to clarify. When your session is complete, your practitioner will review methods to amplify your results at home, as well as provide recommendations for ongoing treatment, should you prefer to continue your therapy. 

How are treatments created for each person? 

At WellQuarters, we always assess each patient individually in order to personalize the unique treatment plan that is best for you. After going over your medical history, you will discuss your objectives and undergo a brief examination. If you have had appointments with any of our other wellness practitioners, notes from those sessions may be reviewed in order to best meet your needs.

Because our cupping practitioners are licensed acupuncturists, treatment plans are generally created using the same methods implemented during our acupuncture sessions. Assessment of pulse and tongue, symptoms, and goals for your therapy are among the factors considered when determining the course of your treatment. Your cupping session itself also contributes to your practitioner’s ability to pinpoint your particular needs. It is useful, for instance, for your practitioner to pay attention to the areas of your body that are especially sensitive and take note of changes to your pulse. Even the characteristics of the markings left on your skin can provide valuable insight about your circulation, potential deficiencies, and levels of toxins and congestion.

After your treatment, your practitioner will talk with you about the best way to realistically meet your needs. This may include recommendations for follow-up sessions, home stretches, dietary changes, herbal supplements, or other integrative wellness treatments—such as acupuncture or massage. Don’t be afraid to be specific and ask questions! We work carefully with each patient to create a customizable plan intended to tap into the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Your input matters!

How often should I be treated?

Each treatment plan is completely unique to the patient—including the recommended frequency of sessions. Your practitioner will offer guidance based on your condition, your goals, and how you respond to your sessions. 

We think it is important to note that, because these treatments aim to retrain your body’s natural healing mechanisms, your sessions do build on each other. Especially if you are seeking treatment for an acute injury or illness, your practitioner might recommend that you come in weekly for a brief period of time. If your goal is to manage a chronic condition, a longer term plan could be more ideal. Most patients begin to feel improvement after their first treatment, but some take two or three sessions to experience real change. Effects tend to become longer lasting over time.

What should I do before and after?

To make the most of your cupping session, we recommend that you wear loose-fitting clothing, drink plenty of water, have a light snack, and refrain from brushing or scraping your tongue before arrival. Because the cupping process involves some warming and pulling on the skin, you should be sure that you are recovered from sunburn or open wounds, and hold off on shaving and exfoliation. When possible, avoid alcohol, stimulants, and other drugs prior to your appointment—but do not stop taking prescribed medications without speaking to your doctor. We find it beneficial to arrive a few minutes early so you can take some deep breaths and relax (and turn off your phone!) before getting started.

After your appointment, take your time getting up, and allow yourself to move slowly as you reintegrate into the outside world. To support continued healing, it’s best to get some rest, and avoid overexerting yourself with strenuous labor or vigorous exercise—especially if you are new to cupping. Walking, stretching, and yoga are great options for post-cupping activity. Your skin will be a bit sensitive to temperature, so keep your body warm, and avoid showering or swimming for at least several hours. Abstaining from alcohol for the rest of the day (or several days) will assist your body’s natural detoxification process. Most importantly, stay hydrated!

Now, for the marks. You’re probably wondering how long you might look like you’ve wrestled an octopus after your cupping session. The truth is that every person and body is unique. If you and your friend come in for identical treatments, you may leave with marks that are very different in color—though generally all are some shade of purple or red—as well as intensity. The same is true for how long your cupping marks last. Most typically, your skin will return to normal within three to seven days, but it can sometimes take a bit longer for discoloration to fully fade away. With continued treatments, your resulting marks will become lighter over time.

If you want to hasten this process, we recommend applying arnica cream to the treatment area or asking your practitioner for a personalized herbal formulation. However, proper aftercare is the most important factor in determining your healing time. To review, that means getting plenty of rest, keeping the treatment area covered and warm, avoiding the intake of toxins such as alcohol, and—we cannot stress this enough—staying hydrated.

Some people wear their cupping marks with pride. However, if you want to ensure that your skin is blemish-free for a particular engagement, it’s best to plan a couple of weeks ahead or come in after your event. If you have any concerns about marks or after-care, let your practitioner know. We’re here to help!

Any risks to know?

Cupping, when performed by a licensed practitioner, is a completely safe treatment for most people. It is possible to experience slight discomfort during treatment, but cupping should not be painful. You may notice increased fatigue or mild flu-like symptoms following your session. Rest assured that these are indicators of the body’s natural detoxification process and should subside quickly. Other side effects—apart from temporary, painless skin discoloration—are rare, but can include soreness, dizziness, headaches, or burns (during fire cupping).

Inform your practitioner if you have a bleeding or clotting disorder, are taking blood thinners, have a pacemaker, or think you may be pregnant. Because it has the potential to irritate sensitive skin, cupping should be avoided on inflamed skin, sunburn, rashes, or open wounds. Be sure to communicate with your practitioner about any allergies, sensitivities, or skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis. These conditions do not disqualify you from receiving treatment, but may alter your course of treatment for effectiveness and safety.

If you are unsure about the safety of cupping or if you are hoping to remedy a specific medical condition with this treatment, it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor first. Though it has many benefits, cupping therapy should not be considered a replacement for other medical care.

Be sure to disclose all other medical treatments you are receiving and medications you are taking (including over the counter and supplements) in order to ensure that any necessary precautions are taken for your well-being. If you have any questions or suspect that you are experiencing any symptoms related to your treatment—during or after—let your practitioner know right away!


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