Fitness + Well-being

Cupping Therapy: Is This Alternative Health Practice For You?



Got aches, stomach pains, asthma or sprains? You just might benefit from “cupping,” an ancient health practice whereby cups are used to create suction on the surface of the skin. Similar in some respects to acupuncture, cupping therapy is believed to stimulate blood flow and alleviate pain by many alternative medicine specialists.

In recent years, this alternative therapy has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, thanks in no small part to celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston (above), Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Simpson, AnnaLynne McCord and David Arquette, many of whom can be seen sporting the large suction marks from the procedure in recent photos. But is cupping just another Hollywood trend or is this alternative health practice something we should be trying?

According to licensed acupuncturist Jordanna Dworkin of InTouch NYC, cupping therapy has very real health benefits. She believes, along with many alternative practitioners, that cupping can reduce swelling and pain by improving blood flow and “qi,” a type of life energy believed to be important to health by many Chinese cultures. It’s especially beneficial for those “with phlegm congestion in the lungs, aches and pains along the back body, and abdominal cramping — especially the kind related to PMS woes,” she says.

A typical cupping session, as Dworkin explains, would start with a discussion between the client and practitioner. After determining the best course of treatment, the acupuncturist would strategically place cups (usually made of glass, plastic or bamboo) on specific acupuncture points and “regions of the body requiring an unblocking of stagnant qi and blood.” A vacuum is then created within the cups, either by utilizing a hand pump or the more traditional method of heat, in which a flame is briefly introduced into the cups before being placed on the skin. This suction is maintained for 15 to 20 minutes, drawing blood to the areas where it’s needed most, she says. Sliding cup therapy, in which the cups are used in conjunction with oil and moved across the body’s meridians (paths connecting acupuncture points), can also be implemented at this point.

“Relief will last for several days to one week,” claims Dworkin, “but additional treatments may be required for more chronic conditions.” Dworkin adds that there are no real side effects, other than the large, dark marks left behind from the suction of the cups, which can also last for as long as a week.

Costs for this type of procedure vary at different offices, but a typical half-hour session at InTouch NYC is $50 (including a light tui na massage afterward) to upwards of $100 when combined with acupuncture.

But before you go spending your money on a treatment, know that some doctors believe cupping therapy to be less than effective.

“I would label cupping in the category of a placebo effect,” says Marc K. Siegel, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine. And while Siegel acknowledges that cupping might have physiological effects on the body (i.e. drawing blood to the skin through bruising or massaging), he believes there are better ways to get the same effect. “It’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money,” he concludes.

On the other hand, Siegel believes that acupuncture, which is sometimes practiced in conjunction with cupping, has many valid uses. “It’s based on real science,” says Siegel. “Acupuncture has many uses, and several of them are musculoskeletal,” he continues, detailing how acupuncture can be an effective treatment for back pain, among other ailments. “I think it’s widely overused,” he clarifies, “but in the areas where it has actual uses, it may be underused.”

Both Dworkin and Siegel, however, would agree there’s no real harm in cupping therapy other than the bruises it leaves on your torso (which, as Dworkin points out, are proudly worn by trend-setting celebrities nowadays). So, if you think cupping is something you’d like to try, research a practitioner in your area and schedule an appointment — and remember to bring a long-sleeved sweater to your session.