Neck and back pain aren’t uncommon, especially for those who sit at a computer all day long for work. That telltale stiffness in the neck and between the shoulder blades can lead to headaches and other discomfort. Getting a massage or other alternative treatment can help ease the pain. Adding cupping into the mix can maximize relief.
Most people have no idea what cupping is or how it works. The folk medicine technique was thrust into the spotlight during the 2016 Summer Olympics, when U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps garnered attention for the dark, purplish circles on his back. Phelps happily explained his obsession with cupping therapy.
Cupping is one of the oldest alternative treatments, with roots in Ancient Egypt, Chinese, traditional Korean, Unani, and Tibetan cultures. One of the oldest mentions of the practice comes from Eber’s papyrus, dated 1550 B.C.
“Any blockage in the body causes pain and discomfort,” said Thalia Gray of Pittsburgh Healing Arts. As a board-certified practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, Gray offers cupping therapy to her clients as part of her services. “Cupping brings that blockage to the surface, where it can exit the skin.”
Cupping therapy increases blood circulation to the treatment area. It can relieve muscle tension, leading to better blood flow and cell repair. Cupping may also help the body form new connective tissues and blood vessels within the tissue. A growing body of research supports the effectiveness of cupping therapy for alleviating symptoms of some systemic diseases.
Some of the benefits associated with cupping therapy include:
• Boosting cellular immunity.
• Changing the biomechanical properties of the skin.
• Improving local metabolism without oxygen.
• Increasing pain thresholds.
• Promoting blood flow in the skin and surrounding tissues.
• Reducing inflammation.
When introducing the concept of cupping to her clients, Gray explains the bruise-like marks left behind as hickeys. “No marks after cupping means no congestion in the body. The darker the color of the marks, the older the blockage,” she said.
Amy Green of Pittsburgh Acupuncture & Massageworks said she emphasizes to her clients that cupping therapy isn’t painful. Green is an acupuncturist who focuses largely on neuromuscular issues.
“Cupping doesn’t cause pain, it relieves it,” she explained. “Cupping has a really beneficial effect on the fascia. This is the wrapping of the muscle tissues. It wraps at every level of muscle tissue and organs, making it the most ubiquitous body system. Cupping really helps fascial restrictions.”
There are two ways to perform cupping therapy. Fire cupping uses glass jars on the skin. A lighter or other flame is used to create suction before the cup is applied to the treatment area.
“Fire cupping is a beautiful technique because it warms the back, but I choose not to use it,” said Gray. She instead uses silicone cups or plastic cups. Plastic cups are applied using a suction tool for stationary cupping, while silicone cupping is used for a sliding cupping method involving gentle suction and oil to move the cups around an area.
Green said that she uses fire cupping on her patients as needed. With static cupping, she places cups on problem areas for 10 to 15 minutes. The cups can then be moved to a new location once the time is up. With sliding cupping, she uses a lubricant and cup with gentle suction, moving the cup along the line of the muscle fiber with successive increases in suction.
“It might feel a bit intense, but it’s never painful,” she said. “If anything, having a group of cups on your body can be extremely relaxing and incredibly helpful for treating areas like the lower back and IT band.”
Most of Gray’s clients have stagnant areas around their shoulder blades and neck. “We spend so much time sitting at our computers. People have sore, tight shoulders. Pain gets trapped at the shoulder blades. Cupping gives immediate relief to some and can reduce neck and back pain,” she explained.
Gray said that she recommends combining cupping therapy with some light massage and acupuncture to maximize the benefits. “Doing one is just a less complete treatment,” she said.
Cupping releases blockages and redirects energy, while acupuncture helps improve energy flow throughout the entire body. Each session with her clients lasts an hour. During the session, she decides which modalities are needed and can combine massage, cupping, and acupuncture. She discusses her recommendations with clients and never uses any method of treatment that makes them uncomfortable.
Green agreed that getting a cupping and massage combination is the best of both worlds. She has a trained crew of skilled massage therapists that offer a variety of services, including cupping.
“You get compression and decompression. Oftentimes, people who get very temporary results with massage will find that the results last much longer with cupping,” she said. “Sometimes it can make a huge impact on chronic pain.”
Like Gray, she reiterated that dark marks on treatment areas is a sign that the cupping treatment worked. The marks should become lighter and lighter with each subsequent session.
People who want to try cupping therapy for the first time should seek out a board-certified practitioner or licensed massage therapist trained in the technique to reduce the risk of having it done improperly. Like anything, cupping can be overdone, which would negate the benefits of the treatment.
Gray recommended getting cupping once a week for no more than four consecutive weeks before giving it a break. “If you do it too often, you won’t get the same intensity of results,” she said.
Cupping isn’t right for everyone. Gray said people with skin rashes or wounds and cancer patients should avoid it. Pregnant women can have it done but should avoid cupping on their abdomens or bellies.