Cupping Therapy

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When it comes to the Traditional Chinese Medicine technique of “cupping” you can even have it with fire, if you are so inclined.

Cupping is a relaxing, effective and time-honoured method for treating a multitude of ailments including muscle and back pain, arthritis, respiratory issues, migraines, infertility and circulatory imbalances. The technique applies cups of various sizes, made of various materials – glass, silicone or plastic – to localized areas on the back. The cups are used to create a vacuum effect which gently pulls the skin upwards to stimulate blood flow, release toxins and promote healing.

There are a couple of different approaches a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner might use create this effect. I am inclined towards fire cupping: when a flame is inserted into an inverted glass cup, extinguished and the cup is pressed to the skin. If this is not your taste, the therapy can also be done using a plastic cup where a pump is used to remove the air. When the cups are applied to the back they can remain stationary over a trigger point, or they can be glided over the skin in a muscular-dermal massage. This stimulates soft tissue and soothes tense muscles.

The cupping technique works with the nervous system and induces a sedative effect. This combined with the applied heat, or acupuncture, is very restful and provides an instant sense of relief.

For me, the rhomboid muscles, located under each shoulder blade, are a common trouble spot, as is the lumbar region of the lower back. Underneath the cup, the tissue is compressed and this tightness provides a reprieve from the ach and discomfort. Hawthorn Clinic’s TCM practitioner, Sharon Conroy, says that it is similar to holding something tightly and then letting it go.  You hold it and it relieves the pain and when the cup is released everything begins to flow again. The surrounding tissue is invigorated and circulation and lymphatic flow is renewed, encouraging detoxification.

As with all forms of TCM, cupping therapy is a Holistic treatment and takes the entire affected system into consideration. Dealing with the root causes, not just the target site or symptom. For example, stomach issues are treated by incorporating all the organs and glands involved in digestion.  While the treatment for asthma, or prolonged cough after a cold, applies cups on the back around the lungs to loosen phlegm and congestion.

Often when a cupping session has been particularly effective a temporary discoloration will appear on the skin. Conroy says this cup-sized, reddish marking is due to a stagnation, or congestion in the tissue and muscle fibers. Stagnation indicates the lymph fluid, Chi, or blood flow isn’t moving as it should.

There can be several reasons for this stagnation. Possibly a lack of exercise, if we are not taking appropriate stretch breaks at a sedentary job, or if we have incurred an injury. The discolouration on the skin indicates circulation has resumed and toxins are releasing from the muscle and soft tissue.

Conroy adds that if this colouring is a concern it is easy for a practitioner to administer the treatment so that marks do not appear on the skin. Though, in recent years showing one’s cupping marks has become increasingly trendy with many celebrities sporting their dots on the red carpet.

Facial cupping is also quite popular as both aesthetic and therapeutic treatments, wherein tiny cups are drawn across the face to stimulate and reeducate muscle tone and diminish fine lines. While studying in China, Conroy says the technique was used in a clinical manner to retrain the facial muscles of patients effected by stroke or Bell’s palsy, a condition denoted by drooping muscles or stiffness in the face.

Personally, I have found cupping to be one of the most effective methods for treating back pain. The pressure over the knotted muscles provides immediate relief.

As for the little marks, while they illustrate trouble spots in my body they are also evidence of healing – I don’t mind them in the least.