I love this photo. It’s very cheeky. It makes me think of the sort of thing that could happen when you get a group of Chinese medicine practitioners together at a dinner party, perhaps during the washing up.
So what is cupping and when do we use it?
I’d like to say at this point, I do use a professional cupping set! The cups themselves are either glass, plastic or bamboo. Traditionally, practitioners used a flame to create a vacuum effect which ‘sucks up’ the tissues which is known as fire cupping. Although I was taught this method, I prefer the ‘health & safety’ version of a plunger that attaches to a valve on the cup. I personally feel it gives me more control of the amount of suction I use.
Applying the cups ‘sucks up the tissues’ separating the muscle fascia and allowing the blood and fluids to move more freely in the tissues and muscles. In the old Chinese medicine texts, they talk about ‘drawing out the pathogenic evils’ a term I like actually. However, ‘mobilising the blood flow’ is probably a term we can better understand.
I use cupping a lot in my practice. Most commonly, for tension in the upper back and shoulder area. What I find is that cupping releases the muscle tension quickly, more so than deep tissue massage (which is great, don’t get me wrong). Cupping is also very helpful when patients have a chest infection, bad cough etc.
What happens at a treatment then? Is it uncomfortable? What about those marks?
A common presentation is where the upper back is tight and painful, probably with restricted movement in the shoulders and neck. I will usually apply some massage oil which allows me to slide the cups covering a large area. Most patients find their mobility improves straight away and continues to improve further over the next few days or so. In cases where patients have been unwell with a lung/chest related problems, the treatment will be more conservative. I would probably just leave the cups in situ for a short time.
A good practitioner will always be checking in with their patient to ensure they are comfortable. I find that patients are happy with an acceptable level of discomfort. The best example being when you have muscle tension and someone gives you a bit of a massage. It’s kind of a bit uncomfortable but feels good. I consider that ‘therapeutic discomfort’. Similarly, the next day muscles feel a bit sore but movement is better, same as after an exercise work out.
The marks produced can look a bit dramtic and for those unfamiliar with Chinese medicine, they can look a bit scary. As a rule, the darker the cupping mark, the more stagnation is present. What we see over the course of a few sessions is that the resulting marks become much less, to the point where no marks appear indicating the tissues are healthly.
Cupping is generally very safe however I would urge patients to check their practitioner has the appropriate training. There is an art to effective cupping and an appropriateness to it’s application. When and where and how much to use it comes from good training and experience.