I received a great compliment the other day. A nine year-old girl said to her mom, “I need to go see Kerry and get cupping.” In my acupuncture practice, I try to teach my patients how to assess their health and how to know when they need a treatment for pain, stress, and overall balance. I thought it was great that this nine year-old, who I first began treating at just 6 months of age, knew it was time to have a check-up.
What Is Cupping?
Cupping is a traditional folk remedy used in many cultures and countries for thousands of years including Egypt, Greece, and Asia. It was understood that moving the blood, lymph and qi (energy) through cupping could be useful for a lot of different conditions.
In modern days, cupping is used for muscle tension and injury, back pain, neck pain, lung congestion, asthma, and allergies. In the case of this nine year-old, a new basketball season and stress from the 4th grade resulted in tightness in her neck and shoulder.
Cupping is used for:
- Back Pain
- Neck pain
- Shoulder pain
- Lung congestion
Cupping can be done anywhere on the body, and different size cups will fit different sized bodies and areas of the body. I may use cups on the arm for carpal tunnel syndrome, on the legs for calf and hamstring pain or injury, and the most common area- the back for upper back and lower back pain and sciatica.
How Does Cupping Happen?
Traditionally, cups could be made out of animal horns, bamboo, or glass jars. Some modern practices use silicone or plastic cups. In my practice, I use a glass cup and a technique called fire cupping. I soak a cotton ball with alcohol and ignite it, then quickly put it into the glass jar, removing the oxygen. This allows suction to occur onto the skin as I quickly place it on the patient’s back. It does hurt, but you do not feel the heat from the fire. I adjust the pressure of the cup for comfort so that only a gentle suction or pulling is felt.
For my own kids, I had to forgo the dramatics of the fire. They were scared the fire would hurt them. No problem, I use silicone cups that create a plunge by squeezing them and place them on the back.
As the cups rest on the back, the patient may feel relaxation. It’s a bit like a massage where the muscle is pushed on to create circulation. In cupping, the muscle is pulled up and into the cup, which also creates an increased circulation of blood and relaxation of the muscle.
For tight muscles, I might use a technique called running cupping. This is where I move the cups up and down the back. It feels great, like a massage, and pediatric patients often request it.
The time the cups are left on the body can vary from a few minutes to up to 15 minutes. After they are removed, the cups may leave red circle markings. These marks are not bruises, they are more like a hickey caused by blood being brought to the surface on the skin, not caused by trauma like a bruise. The marks are helpful for providers as we can determine the location and severity of issues dependent on how dark and what color the marks are.
These marks can last a few days to a week. I have a handout I provide to all patients who receive treatments so they can let anyone who may see the area know what the marks are. I recommend providing this handout to school nurses, coaches, or anyone else that may be in contact with your kids and see the marks. I had a memorable phone call from the school nurse one day after my child had cupping. Luckily, she was educated on cupping and not concerned, but I began to use a handout for all patients after that.
I use cupping a lot in treatments for kids, where I may omit using acupuncture needles for a child to feel comfortable. It is also a great remedy for asthma, chronic coughs, respiratory infections, and any other lung congestion.
Why Is Cupping a Great Idea For Moms?
The other day I had an experience with a new mom who was having back pain. She reported tightness in her neck, back, and shoulders that was worse because she was holding her precious newborn, staring into his eyes, and breastfeeding. I suggested we try cupping her upper back to relax the muscles and increase the circulation of blood. While cupping the new mama, revelatory marks came up under cups. These dark red and purple circles were not bruises, they were a crucial diagnostics and ancient tools to show us just how stagnant her blood and qi was. These dark circles meant her muscles were overworked and tight and likely she had been experiencing a lot of stress.
The new mama felt instant relief from the cupping, and her muscles felt relaxed and warm as fresh and oxygenated blood began to circulate that hadn’t before.
I expected this, as I’ve benefited from cupping myself from a number of sports injuries and stress and know just how instantly relaxed I can feel after a treatment. What I didn’t anticipate was what the mom reported after treatment. Not realizing Chinese medicine could be helpful, she had never reported to me that her milk supply was low and she was supplementing with formula. After the treatment, her supply dramatically increased and she was able to support her baby’s needs exclusively with her breast milk. The relaxation of the muscles of her back and the increase of circulation of blood allowed her milk to flow more freely.
Moms can benefit from cupping for:
- Back and Neck Pain
- Shoulder Tension
- Scar Tissue Treatment
What To Expect When You See A Practitioner
During a first visit, there will likely be paperwork to fill out, consent forms, and an intake form. Your provider will discuss your needs and be sure there are no reasons you may not receive cupping. I often incorporate cupping into our one hour sessions with acupuncture, but I also provide stand-alone cupping sessions for 25 minutes (which cost $50.) What other practitioners do, and charge may vary. The number of treatments a person may need will depend on the reason they’re coming in. If I work with a patient with an acute injury, I may recommend treatment a few times per week. Other folks come for cupping a few times per year for general health and relaxation.
Ready to try it for yourself or your kids? You can find a licensed and nationally board certified acupuncturist in your area at the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine