In acupuncture circles, we still talk about a picture that appeared several years ago in People Magazine of Gwenneth Paltrow in an evening gown at some awards gala. The back of her gown was cut low, and on her back were several large, perfectly circular marks that are a tell-tale sign that Gwenneth had been cupped in the previous few days, most likely by her acupuncturist.
Acupuncture is not the only healing tool that is used in Chinese medicine. In adition to acupuncture, practitioners use a variety of methods to help their patients heal. One of the most interesting modalities is the practice of cupping, which involves placing glass or plastic cups on the body in which a vacuum has been created. The vacuum acts to pull the skin, increasing the flow of blood and energy. For practical reasons, cupping is usually done on the larger areas of the body, such as the back or legs; but it can be done almost anywhere if necessary.
I have found that once I have cupped a patient for the first time, one of two things happens; either they always want to be cupped at every appointment, or they never want to be cupped again. The effects of cupping can be subtle, and those people who choose not to be cupped do so not because the cupping was painful–it’s not–they just don’t see the point.
Those people who want to be cupped at every appointment, however, understand the benefits of cupping. The purpose is to move stagnant energy, facilitate healing, and relieve pain. In addition, many patients want their back cupped because it loosens up tight muscles and it’s incredibly relaxing. Essentially, after being cupped a patient feels energized and loose.
There are a couple of ways to create a vacuum in the cups. One is by using cups with small gaskets through which air can be pulled out with a pump. The other method is called fire cupping. A cotton ball is soaked in alcohol and lit, then held in the cup for a few seconds until the flame has used up all the air. The cup is then quickly placed on the skin. It all sounds very dramatic and dangerous, but it is actually quite safe and works very well. The cups may then be left on the skin for five to ten minutes or they can be moved across the skin (while retaining the vacuum) to treat a larger area.
The downside of cupping is that while it ‘s painless, it can leave a mark on your skin that looks like a perfectly round bruise (think very large hickey). If you’re planning to go to the beach or wear strapless evening wear, you may want to postpone being cupped until your next visit. Or not. Apparently Gwenneth Paltrow believed the benefits of cupping outweighed the possibility of being photographed with marks on her back.