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Cupping is an alternative medicine therapy that has been in use for thousands of years. It involves administering suction on the skin through the placement of special cups. Though nobody knows cuppings’ exact origins, the treatment was embraced in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has continued to be used as a method of treating pain, stress, and a variety of other conditions.  Cupping has come into greater awareness as a result of its use by well-known athletes, as the practice leaves temporary but visible marks on the body that have raised questions and curiosity. It can be used as a standalone therapy or in combination with acupuncture.

The History of Cupping

Cupping has been traced both to Eastern and Western medical traditions. It is found in early Iranian medicine, which called it Hijama, referenced in the noted ancient Egyptian medical tract known as the Ebers Papyrus, and written about by both Hippocrates and Herodotus in ancient Greek medical literature.  Cupping’s first reference in Chinese Traditional Medicine dates back 3000 years, but it was notably written about in 300 BCE by an herbalist named Ge Hong. Traditional Chinese Medicine employs ten different types of cupping: weak/light cupping; medium cupping; strong cupping; moving cupping; needle cupping; moxa/hot needle cupping; empty/flash cupping,; full/bleeding cupping; herbal cupping; and water cupping. Different cultures have practiced cupping using the natural vessels available to them. These have ranged from those made of animal horns or gourds to seashells employed by coastal practitioners.

The Philosophy Behind Cupping Therapy

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Yin and Yang are the foundation for understanding health. They are contrasting but interconnected forms of energy that can either be in equilibrium with each other or in conflict with each other. Cupping therapy can restore the balance between the two, disrupting stagnation and congestion that can lead to pain and promoting blood circulation and the natural flow of Qi, or energy. Cupping can be done as a standalone treatment or in combination with acupuncture, following the lines of the meridians.

Modern Cupping Practice

Cupping uses suction to create negative pressure on body parts to lift the tissues and restore the flow of Qi. Wet cupping is a version of the therapy in which the skin is first pierced, thus allowing blood to be drawn during the suction process into the cup. Cupping can relieve tight muscles, loosen adhesions and increase blood flow, stimulating the lymphatic system and releasing toxins.

Cups come in different sizes to accommodate different areas of the body, and can be made from a variety of materials including glass, bamboo, earthenware and silicone. Dry cupping can be done using cups that have suction pumps built into them or by creating heat within the cup prior to placing it upside down on the skin. Whether the process involves a pump or the cooling of the air inside the previously heated cup, a vacuum is created. As the skin rises into the cup, blood vessels expand. The cups are left on the skin for a period of time that usually runs between five and ten minutes but can go as short as three minutes or as long as thirty. Though the treatment is not painful it can be uncomfortable, and it results in deeply colored telltale welts which generally resolve within a week or two.

Different cupping techniques are used to treat different conditions, but the therapy is most frequently used for pain relief, and particularly for those suffering from joint pain, back and neck pain, or arthritis. Cupping has been adopted in recent years by many physical therapists, who also use a similar technique known as myofascial decompression. Cupping has become a popular therapy in sports medicine that came into the public eye when swimmer Michael Phelps appeared at the 2016 Olympics covered in purple welts, and many endurance athletes and athletes who engage in high-impact sports have indicated that they derive great benefit from its use, including faster recovery.

Cupping at Empirical Point Acupuncture

Sharon Sherman has been licensed to practice cupping, acupuncture and Oriental Medicine since 2001 and holds the highest credential available from both the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. She has deep knowledge and understanding of how these therapies and herbs can provide relief and numerous benefits for the unique range of symptoms experienced by her patients.

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