Written by Maxwell Barna, a writer in the men's lifestyle space, covering everything from food and booze to auto, tech, and the Great Outdoors.
Explore to Restore is a content series documenting Ned's search for the world's best restorative traditions and natural healing modalities. We'll be sharing our experiences of the good, the bad, and the just plain... well, you'll see.
If you’ve ever heard anything about cupping therapy, you probably know there’s a lot of contentious conversation surrounding its effectiveness. This thousands-year-old medical practice dates all the way back to ancient Egypt (Its oldest literary reference can be found in the Ebers Papyrus, which is the single oldest—and most important—medical papyri to come out of Egypt during the time period), and has been used in cultures across the world, including in Asia, Ancient Greece, the Middle East, and even Eastern Europe. It has been referenced by famous philosophers, herbalists, and medical practitioners the likes of Hippocrates (Yes, that Hippocrates), Ge Hong, and the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
Modern athletes use cupping therapy in concert with massage therapy to help recover and relax after training and competition, including Olympians like Michael Phelps, Alexander Naddour, and Natalie Coughlin; and NFL pros like former Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware. In fact, Ralph Reiff, executive director of Indianapolis-based St. Vincent Sports Performance, said in a 2016 USA Today article that he has worked with over 100 current and former U.S. Olympians.
If it’s so prevalent in professional sports and elsewhere around the world, why does cupping catch so much grief from Western medicine?
This was the question I carried into my appointment with Philadelphia-based certified massage therapist Michelle Harris, who specializes in cupping therapy and other types of massages. We met at Michelle’s home studio in Fishtown, Philadelphia. The studio is awash in beautiful natural light, and adorned with plants, posters, and other relaxing ephemera. Michelle is smiling and content at her tiny desk as I take off my jacket and sit across from her.
“I like to use cupping as a way to help identify problem areas on people that need extra attention,” she says. “I start with a mix of deep tissue and Swedish massages, and try to feel out problem areas that might need work. Once I can isolate different areas of inflammation or knots, I use cups to dig in deeper and really loosen up the muscle fibers under there.”
Michelle tells me that cupping is a great way to apply constant pressures to trouble areas where our bodies carry stress. While the pressure points on the human body are generally the same, each body carries stress differently. Like the wear marks on a well-worn pair of sneakers, no two are ever really the same.
“I usually find a lot of issues up around the neck and shoulders, on the back, in between the shoulder blades. Those are common spots,” she says. “But you can also find issues all over the body; behind the knee joints, on the front of the shoulders, on peoples’ sides…every body is different.”
As far as the psychological and emotional effects of cupping, which Western medicine looks most skeptically at, Michelle says the effects can be likened to the kind of afterglow we experience from any other deep tissue massage.
“It’s a full-body emotional release,” she says. “My clients routinely experience an improved range of motion, an ease in muscle tension, deeper breathing ability, improved blood circulation, overall relaxation… It helps a little bit of everything.”
Of course, some of the claims about cupping seem pretty far-fetched. Some advocates for cupping believe the cups have the ability to suck toxins and impurities directly out of the skin. And another form of cupping, where therapists use either acupuncture needles or even make micro-incisions in the dermis with a scalpel, draws blood out of the skin to help remove impurities and improve circulation (a la blood letting). Other lore says cupping benefits also include solving fertility or other gynecological issues, helping to alleviate anxiety and depression, lowering blood pressure, relieving migraines and more.
“It’s tough,” Michelle says, “because we’re all different. I don’t doubt that cupping therapy helps different people in different ways—and that’s great—but I think for people new to this, it’s worth focusing on the more tangible benefits.”
But she also doesn’t shy away from telling me a story about a friend of hers who was having fertility issues and resorted to cupping therapy as a way to help mitigate her troubles. According to Michelle, the therapy—and other treatments—worked.
For now, we both decide it’s an easier story if we focus on the more concrete stuff.
When it’s time for my session, Michelle exits the room so I can disrobe and hop on the massage table. Contrary to popular belief, cupping therapy can be a full body experience, depending on where your body is holding tension. I’m told to undress to my comfort level, and remove most of my clothes down to my joggers, which I uhh, wasn’t wearing any underwear under. Whoops.
After I’m comfortable and on the table, Michelle returns, adjusts the face rest, and we begin.
She starts by applying a mix of almond oil and tiger balm, and starts working her way up and down my back. She massages, and then stops every couple of inches to feel out any issues. It’s not long before we find something (Which doesn’t shock me—I’m pretty sure I’m a contiguous ball of stress).
“See, you’re already getting red up here,” Michelle says, running her finger up my right shoulder blade. “I can already feel the skin is a little hot up here, and the coloration is telling me there’s some inflammation there.”
She works her hands around a little more, massaging my shoulders and neck, and after about 15 minutes she reaches for the cups and says—to her surprise and mine—that my body isn’t as much of a wreck as I let on.
Because my body is well oiled at this point, the cups stick to me without effort. She places them on my shoulders, where she says she feels the most tension, as well my problematic right shoulder blade, on my lower back, etc.
Cupping can be applied with several techniques, and there are several different types of cups that are used, but these are plastic and come with a manual suction pump. Depending on the severity of tension and the size of the knot, cupping therapists will use anywhere from three to five suction pumps per cup—but rarely more than that.
“You’ll also see when we’re done that the spots where the most stress is will bruise harder than spots with less tension,” she explains.
Every few minutes, Michelle takes a cup off and moves it somewhere else. On my left side, she slides the cup around on the edge of my shoulder blade to help loosen up the muscle tissue in that whole area.
When she’s done about 30 minutes later, my back looks like a bit of a war zone. Thirteen red spots adorn my flesh, and Michelle shows me in the mirror what every spot means.
“See the two darkest, up near your shoulders? That’s where things were the most tense; the muscle tissue up there needed the most work,” she says.
After cupping, it’s important to try and keep your body away from cold temperatures, especially if you want the bruises to heal quickly. Their essentially damaged blood vessels, and keeping them warm will help blood re-circulate and speed up the healing process. Michelle tells me I should also drink plenty of fluids, and not be surprised if I’m a little sore for a day or two after.
All said and done, the massage and cupping therapy lasted about an hour.
So, what did I notice? I’m about a week out of the massage now, and while I can’t talk about gynecological issues or migraine relief, I can definitely say I see the benefits of cupping from the more “clinical” approach. I didn’t get my blood pressure measured or anything like that, but I did feel a lot better, almost immediately. My breathing had improved (This winter has been pretty rough on my immune system), I felt less tense, my muscles felt good and loose, and say what you will, but I definitely noticed a change in my energy level and mood. In fact, this feeling stayed with me, which I didn’t expect. I felt more well rested than usual the next morning, and definitely had a more productive work day.
Overall, I stand by my statement: The Internet has some very interesting things to say about cupping therapy. But, as someone who actually went and did it, I did notice many of the short-term physical benefits people talk about.
Essentially, if you feel the benefit of a good deep-tissue massage, cupping is that, but cranked up a couple notches. The recovery process was very similar, save for the cup bruises, which actually healed up much faster than I anticipated. I was told I could expect them for up to 10 days after my session, but they were gone in half that time.
I would say cupping is worth the try for anyone who enjoys a good massage, or for those out there who know they carry a lot of tension on them. And hey, if you are experiencing some of the other issues discussed—fertility, constant migraines, high blood pressure, etc.—cupping might definitely be worth a try (After you consult your physician, duh).