Now that Michael Phelps and the Olympics have brought so much attention to the concept of cupping, I have been fielding calls for days asking for more information. In fact, I just had a reporter come in to write a feature about fire-cupping for the local paper. I absolutely adore cupping, but it isn’t anything new; I’ve been doing it in my practice for years, and patients love it. In fact, I still have fond memories of the first time I cupped someone outside of the classroom. We had been fire-cupping all week long in school, and I was dying to try it on a willing victim. The perfect opportunity arose later that month: a first date!
That night, as usual, I was carrying around my entire life in my car…including my shiny new acupuncture cups. I can’t quite remember how it came up, but my date started asking me about acupuncture, and somehow the topic of cupping came up. I mentioned having a set of cups in my car, and he grew curious. The next thing I knew, I had him sprawled out shirtless on his living room floor. Fortunately (for me), the guy had a lot of old injuries and pain, so I had plenty to work with. As I cupped him, he was left with huge purple marks in the area of a previous shoulder injury. Impressed with my work, I decided to use the sliding cup method to really work out the kinks. I straddled him, tube of Vaseline in hand…only to be interrupted by the arrival of his unsuspecting roommate. Awkward.
Now, many practitioners use cupping in their practices, but most tend to settle for plastic cups that can be suctioned to the skin. Not me. I’m all about the drama. I prefer the traditional fire-cupping, where there is an element of theatrics involved. In fire-cupping, glass cups are used. A cotton ball is held with tweezers and set on fire, then swirled around the inside of the cup. The flame sucks all of the oxygen out of the cup, and then the cup is quickly pressed against the skin. Due to the lack of oxygen, the cup suctions tightly to the skin. This suction breaks up stagnation in the muscles, creating a deep tissue massage.
We acupuncturists use cupping for other issues, as well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be used for musculoskeletal issues; the suction can also be used to stimulate acupuncture points. It is common to use cups in the lung area for relief of asthma, and also to expel pathogens (such as the common cold). Small cups can be used to stimulate acupuncture points in lieu of needles.
One of my favorite techniques is called ranchi ho, and I find it to be extremely effective for all sorts of issues where there is too much qi or heat in the upper part of the body. During a session of ranchi ho, tiny pricks are made in the skin, and then the area is cupped. The release of blood leads to a state of relaxation that can be mind-blowing. This is great for stress, insomnia, and agitation-although it sounds grotesque, patients often beg me for it!
One of the coolest things about cupping is the physical proof of stagnation that comes up when it is done correctly. There are two types of cupping: stationary and sliding. Stationary is, well, stationary. The cup sits on the skin without being moved. Sliding cup is done with some sort of lubricant, such as Vaseline. After the skin is prepped with the lubricant, the cup is moved up and down the patient’s back. If there is no stagnation, the skin will redden, but then quickly fade back to its normal shade. If there is an area of stagnation, however, tiny red dots will rise to the surface. These dots look like sand, and we call them “sha”. If there is enough stagnation, the dots will turn almost black, and the patient will be left with dark purple marks that will fade in a few days. It’s really quite amazing. I can use cups on a patient’s entire back, and only the area of pain will be left with marks. It’s like a roadmap of pain!