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Cupping therapy - benefits and side effects

Cupping therapy is the placement of glass, plastic or bamboo cups on specific areas of the body using a vacuum. It is thought to originate from traditional Chinese medicine, however other civilisations in the world have used it in history.

Traditionally, a flame is used to create a vacuum inside the glass cup before it's applied to the problem area on the body. Nowadays, a pump is used instead to draw the air out of the plastic cup creating a vacuum and suction. There is no difference between glass or plastic cups except for safety reasons as the pump is safer and has less side effects.

It is a great way of releasing tension in a large muscle area quickly. It can be more effective than massage alone and works well when combined together with other traditional Chinese medicine therapies such as acupuncture or gua sha.

After having treatment, it can feel like you've had a deep tissue massage and is very relaxing, especially when the cups are taken off and you can relax in your own skin again.


Cupping has been used in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia for thousands of years to treat a variety of health problems.

This ancient therapy isn't restricted to use in traditional Chinese medicine only. It has a long history of use in the UK and Europe and has been practiced for hundreds of years. Its use in modern western medicine declined however, but still remained popular in East Asia, where it was brought from and reintroduced into westernised countries over the last few decades, where it is now considered an alternative medicine. Recently it's been made famous by the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, which demonstrates the effectiveness of cupping for his muscle tension prior to competing.

Health benefits

Cupping involves removing blockages in the energy pathways that flow around our body. It's also used to draw old blood out of the body for problematic skin conditions. It works by:

  • Removing stagnation in the muscles to improve energy flow
  • Help with cervical spondylosis
  • Promotion of better blood flow within the blood vessels and blood circulation
  • Increased circulation to the skin
  • Freeing up tense tissue and muscles, loosening knots and connective tissue and fascia
  • Relieving muscle pain
  • Reduces pain
  • Aiding the supply of oxygen to the cells
  • The release and drain of toxins or excess fluids in the body.

The different types of cupping

There are 3 different types of cupping, dry, wet and rolling. Both the dry and wet cupping methods are used to assist any problems with the respiratory system like bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as illnesses like chest infections or the common cold.


Dry type, also called suction cupping, uses suction to create suction. Traditionally a flame is placed inside a glass cup to create a vacuum and then the cups are placed on parts of the body that need treatment. This causes the skin to pull up inside the cup, drawing any problems such as stagnation out of the area.

In modern times, cupping practitioners use a pump instead of a flame to pull the air out of the cup creating a vacuum and suction. The skin rises into the cup and will start to become red or purple. The cup is typically left in place for around twenty minutes or slightly longer.

This is the most common form and is widely practiced by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. I practice this type in my clinic.


Rolling type uses soft cups such as silicone over oiled skin. The cup is rolled over the body area to improve the quality of the skin appearance, for example cellulite. As massage lotion is used prior to treatment so it isn't uncomfortable.

This type is purely cosmetic in value and isn't practiced much. However, I practice this type in my clinic.


Wet type is used a lot in the Middle East and is known as hijama cupping. During wet type, the acupuncturist will use a sterilised lancet to make small incisions and pierce the patient's skin, causing the person to bleed. The cups are then placed over the bleeding area to draw a small amount of bad blood out of the body for therapeutic benefits. This type is often used to treat skin conditions as it's good to remove toxins from the body and helps to promote new skin growth.

This technique is very good for skin conditions such as psoriasis.

This type can be messy, but I do practice in in my clinic for people with skin problems.

Types of cups

The cups typically made from glass, bamboo, plastic or silicone. The practitioner puts the cup on the skin where there is muscle tension and a vacuum is created to suck the flesh into the cup. It is believed that placing these cups on specific areas of the body helps to move stagnant Qi (energy) and increase blood flow allowing the body to detoxify accumulations in the muscles and promote better general health.

Personally, I use the plastic pumps, which are safer and won't singe people's body hair or set off fire alarms. I use this form of therapy to relieve muscle tension in my clinic. It's very effective and isn't a placebo effect.

Side effects

It isn't painful but will leave a small dark, circular bruises on the body for a few days. After a week or so the mark will disappear and the skin will look normal again.

With fire type there is a chance that body hair can be singed from the naked flame, especially in men who have hairy backs.

Who practices cupping therapy?

In modern times, its practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that perform cupping on people. A hundred years ago western medicine doctors would have performed cupping on people in hospitals in the UK and Europe.

What happens during a cupping session

During treatment, the practitioner will ask you where your muscle pain and tension is. You'll then be asked to take your clothes off and lie down on a treatment couch.

Once you're comfortable and ready to begin, the practitioner will place the cups on the painful areas that you advised the practitioner of.

Whether dry or wet cupping is used, the cup will be applied to the skin and a vacuum created so as to pull the problem area's skin and flesh into the cup. It will look like a half-ball of flesh in the cup.

You'll be left with the cups on the problem areas of the body for around 20-30 minutes. Afterwards the cups will be removed and you will feel comfortable being back in your skin again.

The practitioner may wipe you down if there is any blood or residue left on the skin. You can then put your clothes back on as the treatment has finished.

It's good to drink plenty of water and after treatment as toxins once held in the muscles are released back into the body and need to be flushed out through the urine.