Five reasons to ask your Acupuncturist about Cupping

San Diego acupuncturist, Angela Draper, gives us 5 reasons why you should ask your acupuncturist about cupping.


Ever since the 2016 Olympics when Michael Phelps re-entered the pool with dark purple circles covering his shoulders, cupping has entered mainstream western consciousness. But, what is it? And how does it work?

What is Cupping?

Cupping or baguan is a suction technique that uses glass cups to pull blood up to the surface of the body, just below the skin. This process called extravasation doesn’t damage blood vessels, nor break the skin, but it will cause markings ranging from light red to dark purple in color.

Gua sha, also known as spooning, scraping or cao gio, is a close cousin of cupping and gets similar results using an instrument assisted press-stroke technique.

Cupping and gua sha have withstood the test of time – they are still in use today because they work! Both have been used for thousands of years by physicians of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and as a home remedy primarily in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

We now have a better understanding of the science behind their healing powers, which I explore more fully here. In the US most acupuncturists are trained as physicians and are well versed in the arts of cupping and gua sha. Chiropractors and physical therapists have also begun to employ cupping for their patients.

Below focuses primarily on cupping, but know that there is an overlap in how the two therapeutically function.

1. Cupping reduces pain

Cupping effectively reduces neck pain, low back pain, sciatic pain, trigeminal neuralgia, headaches, TMJ, shoulder pain, and cancer related pain to name a few.

How do we know? In addition to a few millennia of clinical experience, there have been multiple clinical trials demonstrating its effectiveness. In fact, there have been two systematic reviews of clinical trials on cupping which both conclude that cupping reduces chronic and acute pain, in some cases, showing a greater reduction in pain compared with usual care, anticancer drugs, analgesics, or heat therapy.

2. Cupping reduces inflammation

Dry cupping pulls blood up to the surface of the body, just below the skin.  When this blood on the surface is reabsorbed back into the blood stream, a little bit of magic occurs.

The body sends out a highly specialized cleanup crew with a host of anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-pain biochemicals: a key player being heme-oxygenase-1. These anti-inflammatory effects help reduce not only pain, but also chronic inflammation such as with asthma and bronchitis, many skin and digestive disorders and chronic stress.

3. Cupping boosts the immune system

Cupping can help to fight off infections and treat autoimmune disorders. As explained above, cupping stimulates the body to naturally release immuno-protective biochemicals that help fight against colds and upper respiratory infections as well as immuno-deficiencies and can even be helpful in some autoimmune disorders.

4. Cupping alleviates stress

The biochemicals released during cupping are known to help with oxidative stress at a cellular level. In addition, the mechanical action of suction pulls up on the skin, to stretch muscle and connective tissue while breaking up adhesions between the skin, the fascia, and the muscles. It’s a bit like massage’s ‘opposite’ cousin in reducing muscle tension. Many people enjoy the sensation of cupping while others find it mildly uncomfortable, but most feel great afterwards.

5. Cupping is typically included as part of a comprehensive acupuncture treatment

These days cupping is seldom given as a stand-alone procedure. Commonly, it’s included as part of a more thorough acupuncture treatment plan that stimulates the body’s natural resources to address an extensive list of health issues.  This means that you’ll have a licensed physician looking after you to diagnose and address the root cause of your problem.

Acupuncturists have an array of tools beyond acupuncture including herbs, nutrition, lifestyle counseling, moxa and of course, gua sha and cupping.  Basically it’s a whole lot of a good thing for your health! 

In Summary

  • Clinically, cupping reduces pain, inflammation, oxidative and muscular stress and has immuno-protective benefits. It also has two thousand years of positive results and modern randomized clinical studies to back them up.
  • Considering the cost and side effects of drugs and procedures that western medicine currently offers for pain management, cupping from a licensed acupuncturist or medical professional should be considered a valid first line of defense.
  • Cupping does show cumulative effects, and is best performed in a series over the course of several weeks or months. The procedure is often applied once a week or sometimes every other week. 
  • It should be used with caution during pregnancy, and in the case of notable weakness or deficiency. It should only be used at specific times when a patient is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer. You will be marked up after treatments, but they make a good story and your body will thank you for the natural boost!

Angela Draper, is a licensed acupuncturist at Your Healthy Spine, San Diego. To learn more about her and her practice visit http://angeladraper.com