For Peter Woolley, 34, years of working construction and nights at a restaurant left him in pain. He also lifted weights, and the limited motion, along with the aching in his shoulders and back, became unmanageable.
One doctor recommended surgery; another told Woolley to scale back his activity. Others had no answers at all.
Even switching to an office job in customer service didn’t relieve the pain. So when Woolley, of Bothell, Washington, heard other weightlifters talking about cupping therapy, he decided to try it. Today, Woolley goes for cupping a couple of times a month. “My pain has decreased 50% or more. I’ve seen a huge improvement in my range of motion, and everything is just more manageable,” he says.
Cupping has been practiced for thousands of years in China, Egypt, Greece, Mexico and other cultures worldwide. Practitioners—often respected elders—would place small cups, sometimes even drinking glasses, on family members or friends as a way of releasing toxins from the physical body and enhancing calm and relaxation, says cupping therapist Jerome Matthews, of Ventouza Wellness near Seattle.
The suction involved in cupping can be created with a pump or by heating the inside of the cup, which adheres to the skin as it cools. There are also silicone cups designed to create their own suction.
When he was a child, Matthews’ Greek grandmother would place cups on his skin while he lay on the kitchen floor and later, as a massage therapist, he felt drawn to the practice. Trained by the International Cupping Therapy Association—which provides certification, training and support for cupping therapists—Matthews says this technique moved into the mainstream after celebrities began talking about it and sports fans noticed the bubble-like marks on the back of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps during the 2016 Olympics.
Those red circles are not bruises but marks left when stagnant blood or cellular debris and toxins are pulled to the surface by the cups, says cupping and massage therapist Jason Miller of the Community Well Whole Body Center in Laguna Beach, California. “I think that’s what makes cupping superior,” Matthews adds. “It lifts the underlying tissue to create space, which sets it apart from other manual therapies, and it can help improve circulation.”
Practitioners and patients say the process doesn’t hurt. The therapy helps reduce inflammation, improve digestion, lower blood pressure and even diminish wrinkles and improve dozens of other conditions to boost overall well-being, according to Sonia Morton, owner of Austin Cupping Therapy in Texas.
“With massage, I can only work on one place at a time with my hands. But, I can place the cups in multiple areas at a time and try to get to the sources of the problem by making connections all over the body,” Morton says.
Several small studies report that cupping may reduce postoperative nausea, improve movement, and ease lower back and neck pain. Yet, much of the research into its benefits is inconclusive. It’s the anecdotal evidence from practitioners and clients that make a convincing case for cupping.
“You can see changes in people just coming off the table,” Miller says. “Their eyes are clearer—the whites are whiter—and they are rested and relaxed. It’s such a paradigm shift.”
Therapists may use light suction cups, particularly for senior clients or kids. Some may apply lotion or oil on the skin, then place a cup and then slide it along the skin in a form of massage, or moving cupping. In needle cupping, acupuncturists may place an acupuncture needle, then put the cup over the area. Dry cupping can be done with silicone cups or glass vessels.
In fire cupping, glass cups are heated briefly before being placed on the skin. Wet cupping involves removing the cups, puncturing the skin and replacing the cups to draw out toxins.
No matter what kind of cupping they try, first-time clients need to work with a trained therapist (see the ICTA site).
Cupping, which can cost between $65 and $120 an hour, often complements other treatments, Matthews says. But, it may not be safe for those with hemophilia, leukemia and some other conditions, so talk to your doctor and cupping therapist beforehand.
Some clients feel a bit woozy or experience temporary flu-like symptoms after a treatment, as their bodies release toxins. Woolley says, “The time and expense are something I can justify because I am getting good results.”