Before I moved to LA (5 years ago), I had never heard of cupping. Fast forward to a few months in, I found it was totally normal—even frequent—to see someone in front of me during yoga moving around with painful-looking, red and purple marks on their back. I always thought it was some kind of weird condition.
As my life, namely my "yoga social life" grew in LA, I found myself more and more interested in Chinese medicine and it's healing avenues such as acupuncture and cupping. A few of my yoga friends and teachers opened up their own wellness clinic, Elysia Life Care in Santa Monica, and I finally got to try putting these red and purple marks on MY back! Why??? Because I started to read about "these marks" (which indeed, come from cupping) and the major benefits it offers such as muscle relief, circulation and detoxification. I was perpetually sore from working out and exhausted from nonstop motion throughout the day, I was ready to take on "cupping" and see if it worked for me.
And I truly LOVE it. This isn't about me, buttt, it felt like a deep tissue massage, I was completely relaxed and felt super open. I still had questions and figured you would too, so I consulted with one of Elysia's clinicians, Janel Gehrke, LAc, MTOM, to find out more about cupping, the what's, why's and how's. Take a look:
What are the major benefits of cupping and how to athletes and non-athletes benefits differ, if at all?
Athletes and Non-athletes can benefit from cupping equally, the main difference is that athletes tend to take better care of themselves!! Haha.
Think of someone who sits at a computer all day. They will likely hold a significant amount of tension in their neck, shoulders, and upper back. Same scenario with parents who are lifting and carrying small (or large) children everyday. These seemingly harmless tasks cause repetitive strain on muscles which can lead to what we call in Traditional Medicine "stagnation," but ultimately this results in pain. When muscle fibers become tense and rigid, the blood flow will decrease. These muscle fibers also have a memory, so once they have found a protective holding pattern they will remain there until the body determines it is no longer under duress. If the same tasks that put the stress on those muscles continues, the pattern will remain and could worsen. One of the purposes of cupping is to activate the immune system and increase blood flow to a specific area. This fresh blood supply can nourish the tense and starved muscles and remind them what it feels like to be in a relaxed state.
Why choose cupping over acupuncture if you can only do one?
As an acupuncturist, obviously I'm going to say do both!! With acupuncture we can address the nervous system directly. This helps remind the body that it does not need to be in a sympathetic dominant state (a flight or flight state). Then we can use the cupping to increase blood flow to nourish the muscles and activate the immune system to clear away any damaged tissue that remains. If you could only do ONE - I would leave that up to your acupuncturist to determine which would be most beneficial for your individual case.
What exactly is happening when the cups are sitting on your back (or wherever they are placed)?
We chose very specific locations to apply the cups depending on what we are treating. The vacuum created by the lack of oxygen within the cup is what draws a fresh blood supply to the area being treated.
Are the marks dangerous? How long do they last?
The marks are not dangerous at all, in fact, we use the type of marking as a diagnostic tool. Sometimes we see a deep dark purple color - think Michael Phelps. This implies long term stagnation stored deep within the muscle tissue. The decompression created by the cup brings that stagnation to the surface where the immune system can address it. These marks don't hurt at all (not like a bruise) and It usually goes away anywhere between 1-10 days. There are other colors and textures we look for, but the purple spots are the most common image people see when they think of cupping.
Why do you light the cups on fire before application?
Using fire is the traditional way of removing the oxygen from within the cup and creating the vacuum. Some practitioners prefer the more modern plastic suction cups that use a pump to remove the air and create the vacuum seal. I personally prefer the fire and glass cup combination for the majority of my cupping. Some locations on the body are easier (and safer) to access with the suction cups, so I use them on occasion as well.
How many times per month should you do cupping in order to reap benefits?
This depends on what we are treating and how the body responds to the first session. I usually recommend waiting at least a week between sessions, but each case is very different.
Does it hurt?!
In my personal experience it does not hurt at all, in fact, it feels amazing. Like bringing life back into parts of my neck/shoulders/back/ that I didn't even know were tense.
I often compare the experience to having a deep tissue massage because most people can relate to this experience. If we are working on an area that is particularly tight, you may feel more sensation, but usually it offers such relief that it's worth it. I like to prepare my patients for the after effects as well, much like any deep muscle work, they may experience some sensitivity in the area that was worked on (this does not last long, usually no more than the day), they may also feel groggy or a little headachy. This means the body is processing an abundance of toxic build up and we mobilized it with the session. In an effort to minimize any potential negative sensations, it's really important to drink a lot of water after the session and avoid strenuous activity if possible. It is also advisable to avoid consuming alcohol, sugar, dairy, and any other deep fried or processed foods. This allows your body to function optimally and process the toxins at a more efficient rate.
Would you try cupping? Let us know and dish in the comments below!