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What Is Cupping Massage?

ELMT recently introduced cupping to our home practice. In this article we will give you a little history on cupping and talk about how it works today. Keep in mind western use of cupping is relatively new and studies are still ongoing.

Cupping originates from traditional Chinese medicine practices. The use of fire cupping with bamboo or glass cups is the traditional method of cupping. Fire cupping is when a flame is introduced to heat up the cup and air inside before placing it on the skin. As the cup cools, the air pressure changes and creates a vacuum. Often the cups are left in place for a specific amount of time which is called static cupping. In the past cupping also had ties to bloodletting in that practitioners would make small incisions before placing the cup to ‘draw out bad blood’. This was used to treat many things from ache and pains, indigestion, dermatological issues, and even viral infections. Much of this is considered pseudoscience today. Cupping has evolved over time especially as technology and science continue to advance. These kinds of treatments are not practiced in the same way today and are out of scope of practice for massage therapists but we have different cupping techniques that we can use.

While we can’t use fire cupping in the massage industry today there are alternatives that have created a westernized branch of cupping. Today massage therapists have the options of silicone or vacuum cupping. With the advancement of technology and the creations of new plastics, valves, and vacuum machines, therapists can do cupping without having an open flame in the room. These methods are within our scope of practice and are covered by insurance companies in the field.

Silicone cups are very simple and easy to use. They work by indenting the cup, placing it against the skin, and releasing the pressure. The thick silicone will want to return to its original shape which creates a vacuum pressure. This is an easy and quiet method to do cupping.

It also allows the therapist to adjust the pressure more than fire cupping as the cup can be taken off and reapplied immediately. The soft edge of the cup also allows the therapist to work in smaller areas and contour to the body during dynamic movement.

Vacuum cups have two different application methods. Some have a manual vacuum handle that has a trigger pump the cup is attached to. There are also machines that mechanically pull a vacuum as well and can be interchanged with the hand pump on the same cups. These cups are usually made of a rigid plastic. The cup is placed against the skin and the machine or therapist pumps some of the air out of the cup through the valve on the top. The vacuum method allows for more accurate pressure to be achieved by the therapist. While silicone cupping has a lot of flexibility in the application, vacuum cups work well for specific repeatable accuracy.

I practice dynamic cupping which makes silicone the best option as the flexibility of the cup allows for easier range of motion over the contour of the body. They are also easy to clean, have more options in cup shape and size, and the pressure has a wide range of variability. These cups are also resistant to breaking if dropped.

So what is dynamic cupping? The most commonly known cupping is static cupping as it leaves distinct circular marks. Michael Phelps was seen with cupping marks across his back which brought it into the spotlight for a short period of time. Dynamic cupping on the other hand is when cups are moved across the skin surface instead of staying in one place. The vacuum is created and the cup slides over the skin continuously holding a vacuum and pulling on the underlying structure gently as the cup passes. This leaves less distinct marks as the vacuum is not sitting still long enough on one spot to create significant bruising.

Dynamic cupping creates a similar sensation to standard massage and can fit a little more seamlessly into a session. The gliding effect helps to break up fascial adhesions and muscular tension over larger areas with less damage to the vascular system. This also gives the therapist a way to manipulate the tissue more effectively with less force and strain.

As westernized cupping is studied over time, we are learning more about how it works and why. We know that cupping can help with neurological pain, localized muscular pain and reducing scar tissue adhesion. Cupping can help by calming the nervous system and reducing compression on irritated nerve endings interrupting the pain cycle. It also helps to break up adhesions by creating a negative pressure that pulls along the adhered tissue helping increase blood flow through restricted areas similar to neuromuscular techniques. Some of the effects of cupping are still being studied to learn more about how they work or if they are placebo effects which can still be helpful.

Cupping does come with some side effects. Even with dynamic cupping a client can have some redness, discoloration, minor bruising, or skin irritation. Clients' skin sensitivity, tolerance and susceptibility to bruising can affect this as well.

These bruises or discoloration are not “toxins”. Traditional cupping ideology touts the benefits of detoxifying the body; but as with any other massage related service this is factually and scientifically incorrect. The bruises left behind are exactly that. The pressure of a vacuum can burst small capillaries near the surface of the skin by over filling them with blood flow. Your body does not create toxins and pressure can not filter them out of your body if it did. As I like to say, If you have toxins in your body you should call poison control and go to the emergency room.

Cupping is really interesting and I am excited to learn more and see what research comes out about it in the future. If you are interested in trying it you can book a session at my home office in Whiting at

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