A modern version of the ancient practice of cupping

Wellthy adjective - characterized by focusing on good habits to make it easier to make healthy choices to have a balanced, healthy life that includes enjoying simple pleasures without guilt.

The Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo are scheduled to kick off on Friday, July 23rd—one year late due to the pandemic. You may remember the last Summer Olympics in 2016 in Rio when swimmer Michael Phelps ended his professional career with 23 gold medals. Phelps garnered attention not only for his athletic achievements but also for his appearance at the Games. He had many dark circular marks all over his body. This was the first time I was introduced to cupping.

What is cupping?

Cupping dates back to ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures. One of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, the Ebers Papyrus, describes how the ancient Egyptians used cupping therapy in 1,550 B.C.1

Many cultural traditions identify a “vital energy” that guides someone’s physical and mental processes. In Indian culture, it’s called prana. In Greek culture, it’s called pneuma. In Chinese culture, it’s called qi.2 There is an old Chinese medical maxim:

Where there’s stagnation, there will be pain. Remove the stagnation, and you remove the pain.

When injuries occur deep in the muscle, bleeding often occurs, causing deep bruises. There will also be edema in the area and coagulation of sticky proteins. This combination usually results in stagnation of circulation in the area, resulting in pain, dysfunction, and chronic conditions. Cupping therapy is one technique that is used to improve circulation and alleviate the blockages that may be causing pain.

A therapist performs cupping therapy by putting special cups on your skin to create suction for several minutes. In ancient times, a flammable substance was used to create a vacuum. Modern cupping uses a rubber pump.

After the experience, the affected areas will change color. There are two common explanations for the marks left behind after cupping. First, as the negative pressure draws the skin up, tiny blood capillaries in the superficial layer of muscles and skin are broken. This drives the body to treat the area as a bruise. Second, the gap between skin layers increases, which allows the tissues to collect toxins and the old non-circulating, stagnant blood and fluids from the area. This allows the lymphatic system to drain the fluids properly.

A light to medium pink color indicates anywhere between a healthy body with little to no toxins to very mild stagnation. Dark reddish to pinkish color indicates mild to moderate stagnation. A dark purple color usually means severe stagnation and is more frequent for first-time users.

Benefits of cupping

  • Loosens the muscles and increases circulation

  • May help reduce joint and muscle pain

  • Stimulates the body’s qi or “natural energy”

  • Can be relaxing like a massage

There are plenty of other claims made about cupping, but I could not find good evidence backing them. Unfortunately, there aren’t many randomized controlled trials that have verified the benefits of cupping. This is due in part because there isn’t a good way to control for the placebo effect. You can give someone a fake pill, but how can you conduct fake cupping?

There are a couple of reviews that did reach positive conclusions. A meta-analysis of traditional Chinese medicine found that acupuncture, acupressure, and cupping could be efficacious for neck and lower back pain in the immediate term.3 Another review of trials found a potential positive short-term effect of cupping therapy on reducing pain intensity. 4

My experience with cupping

It is relatively easy to find a massage therapist or someone who is trained in cupping. But you know me. If there’s a gadget, that’s my go-to approach. Lucky for me, there’s a new device called the Achedaway Cupper.

The Achedaway Cupper is a multifunctional cupping massager that combines dynamic suction, smart massage, and red light therapy in one device. I like that the cupper also uses red light therapy, which I wrote about in a previous newsletter. With the app, you can customize the time (max 12 minutes) and set five different modes and five intensity levels. All you do is charge the device, turn it on, and pair it with your phone. But the million-dollar question is, does it work?

My two chief physical complaints at the moment are neck/shoulder aches and my right hip/upper leg. I decided to start with my upper shoulders and neck.

First, let me say that it looks a lot worse than it is. After I finished the first one and looked in the mirror, I was shocked because it did not feel like the cupper was doing anything. I find it interesting that I used the device the same way in both spots, yet one side was darker. The darker one is the side where I’ve been feeling more pain.

My massage therapist suggested that I try it on the front of my neck. I felt more of a pinch with this one. It looks like a giant hickey or what a Spanish-speaking friend of mine referred to as un ataque del chupacabra.

Finally, I tried several spots on my right leg. My massage therapist said to focus on the area above my knee, and sure enough, the marks closer to my knee are darker than the marks higher up on my leg.

I felt a difference in my neck and shoulders. The range of motion in my neck improved, and I could move my head with less pain. My leg and hip have more going on, and I think it will take multiple treatments to feel improvement. I will continue to use the Achedaway Cupper.

The side effects are mild. I felt a pinch as the cupper started to create the vacuum, but the severity depends on the location and the intensity setting. There is bruising, which will be visible for a week or more. I did feel a little muscle soreness immediately after treatment lasting until the next day, much like I would feel after a deep-tissue massage.

I’m trying to undo the damage of sitting for 8-10 hours every day. I know it will take more than just one type of treatment to fix my physical ailments. Cupping isn’t a miracle cure. Maybe there is some placebo effect going on. The bottom line is that I felt a difference, and that’s what matters.

Cupping is a relatively low-risk treatment, but you should seek advice from a trusted healthcare professional to determine if you should try cupping. If you are interested in the device, you can find the Achedaway Cupper on Amazon. Note: This is an affiliate link. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Do you accept aches and pains as part of getting older or do you believe you can reduce or eliminate pain with the right therapies and techniques?

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