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For centuries, Traditional Chinese Medicine has used cups to apply suction to the skin to stimulate blood and energy flow as a way to relieve pain and inflammation. This practice received new attention during the last Olympics, when Michael Phelps and other athletes proudly sported their cupping marks to improve athletic performance and relieve pain.
In ancient times, glass cups were heated and applied to the skin to create suction. Today, plastic cups are most commonly used and suction is applied painlessly through a hand pump. Cupping kits are inexpensive and easy to find online, and safe for home use.
While this practice of cupping for deep tissue therapy and lymphatic drainage is well known throughout most of the world, it’s a newcomer to the US. However, more than 600 studies have been done showing its safety and effectiveness for a variety of maladies, from shingles to low back and neck pain, acne, facial paralysis, and asthma, with the most common side effect being bruising at the suction site.
The British Cupping Society recognizes two main types of cupping – wet and dry. Dry cupping simply involves using suction to attach a cup to the surface of the skin, and techniques may include leaving the cup in place or moving it around on oiled skin. Wet cupping is typically done after dry cupping. Tiny incisions are made in the skin of the area that has been cupped and then cups are reapplied for a few minutes so a small amount of blood is released on the surface of the skin.
It’s important to know wet cupping is illegal in most of the US and carries contamination concerns when equipment isn’t properly sterilized, so I will be focusing solely on dry cupping and 5 of its amazing health benefits.
Your skin is one of your body’s primary detox organs. When your skin cells have healthy metabolic activity, toxic waste products are eliminated and pushed to the surface. Your sebaceous and sweat glands aid in this process by releasing salts, uric acid, sebaceous material, and more. When dermatological diseases like acne, boils, eczema, and even shingles show up on the skin, it’s a sign not only of glands that aren’t eliminating properly, but also of lymphatic congestion, because your lymph helps fight off foreign invaders.
Cupping therapy increases blood and lymph circulation to the skin. The suction opens up capillaries and permits the exchange of gases to your skin cells, releasing congested and stagnant lymph and blood, and also helping to remove any toxins from the skin’s surface. Not only does this stimulate healing to the areas where you apply the cups, but it also rejuvenates the skin. According to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, it takes only 3 to 5 treatments to see a visible improvement in skin color and tone. To reduce cellulite, first apply oil to the skin, then once the cups are suctioned on, slide them down the area to promote lymph flow.
The philosophy behind relieving pain with cupping is rooted in ancient Chinese Medicine. The basic idea is that where there is stagnation, there will be pain. Remove the stagnation and you relieve the pain. In ancient times this referred only to Qi, the life force in the body. Now we consider not only the vital energy of the body, but also the blood, lymph, phlegm, and other vital fluids as stagnant or obstructed and needing flow restored.
The suction from cupping not only encourages blood and lymph flow to deep tissues, but also gently pulls muscles up into the cup, relaxing them and releasing spasm. There are 2 basic ways people use cupping for pain. The first is to apply the cups where it hurts – sore muscles (or spasms) and achy joints are the most common sites. The second is to cup along the meridian channels of the body. In a nutshell, meridians are the “highways” that energy flows in the body. Originally mapped out centuries ago by Chinese medicine practitioners, we have confirmed their precise locations through modern computer mapping.
Pain is the most common reason people seek alternative therapies, and cupping has been shown in worldwide studies to provide some relief. In studies done on athletes who use cupping for better recovery, it was found to be most beneficial for reducing pain, increasing range of motion, and reducing inflammation (as measured through creatine kinase testing). Studies have also shown that cupping provides some relief from nerve pain from injury, infection, and cancer therapy.
Cupping has been shown to be effective up to 4 inches deep from the external skin, which means it can be effective in helping to detoxify and decongest the respiratory tract. In fact, relief from asthma, congestion from the common cold or other respiratory infection are among the most common uses for cupping worldwide. Cupping not only promotes better circulation, but also reduces inflammation, which results in better blood and air flow through the lungs, stimulating a stronger immune response.
Because cupping stimulates healthy cellular metabolism, it can also have an effect on metabolism overall, stimulating stronger digestion, clearing constipation, and improving appetite regulation. Not only does it relax the muscles when applied over the abdomen, but it also reduces inflammation, improves circulation to deeper tissues, and stimulates the gut-mediated immune response through its effects on metabolism.
Cupping has been shown to modulate the immune system at the cellular level. It is thought that this occurs because skin stimulation changes the environment of the cell by sending biological signals that lead to activation of the immune system. In addition, the bruising that results from intense or prolonged suction also activates local repair mechanisms, which increases both blood and lymph circulation to the area.
Cupping is one of the safest natural therapies I’ve found, but I recommend having it done by a professional before you try it at home. You need to avoid cupping arteries and major blood vessels, and you need a modest amount of anatomy knowledge to be proficient at it. There are several sets available for use at home, but this one is the set of choice for many Olympic athletes and is very reasonably priced: Premium Quality Cupping Set
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