This ancient healing therapy has been used for thousands of years.

Kaitlyn McLintock
September 15, 2020
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Keeping up with the surge of “cure-all” wellness fads is a job in and of itself. In our column Wellness Inspector, we do the work for you, closely examining these trends to see if they’re worth your hard-earned pennies—or whether they’re just hype.

Some wellness practices are easy to dismiss as being little more than a fleeting fad, a mere blip on the ever-changing health and wellness radar. Other wellness practices can’t be cast aside so quickly because they have deep historical and cultural roots that extend back centuries or are backed by top experts. When it comes to cupping, it’s both. 

If you’re completely unfamiliar with cupping, you’re probably familiar (albeit unknowingly) with the marks it leaves behind. Remember when Michael Phelps competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics with big circular bruises covering his back and shoulder? They had many of us wondering if Phelps had suffered a mysterious injury in the days before the event, when in reality, he had simply undergone cupping therapy

Phelps may have played a role in bringing the concept of cupping into the modern zeitgeist, but he certainly can’t be credited for the practice itself, as it's been practiced for ages. Its exact origins are unclear, but it was first documented thousands of years ago in China and has been part of traditional Chinese medicine since then.

What is cupping? 

“Cupping is an ancient healing modality that dates back thousands of years, where cups were placed on the body to help with a variety of healing benefits,” explains Dr. Shari Auth, cofounder of WTHN. These special cups are applied to the skin via heat or suction and kept in place to increase blood and lymphatic flow, purportedly speeding up the body’s natural healing process and reducing pain from sore muscles. 

According to Dr. Richard Firshein, founder and CEO of Laylahealth, cupping is often used in conjunction with acupuncture or acupressure, and the idea behind it is that it removes “stagnation” and promotes the flow of qi (chi). “Qi is the flow of vital energy that circulates through the body and is responsible for health and disease,” says Dr. Firshein, explaining that in traditional Chinese medicine, if qi is blocked, then “various illnesses can ensue.” 

Cups are usually placed on the neck, shoulders, back, and legs, which is where Dr. Firshein thinks cupping is most useful. Once the cups are placed on the skin statically, circular bruises may appear. These form as a result of the vacuum that’s created inside the cups, and they aren’t necessarily painful. “Eastern medicine sees bruising in a positive light since this either indicates blockage of qi or enhanced blood flow, which are both important.” 

What are the benefits of cupping the body? 

Some athletes and trainers claim that cupping speeds up muscle recovery and reduces soreness and stiffness that result from exertion. Dr. Firshein, however, isn’t so sure. He acknowledges that people with chronic pain, particularly chronic neck and back pain, can respond well; however, he says that scientific evidence is wanting. “Unfortunately there are very few studies to back up this treatment. At this point, we have to view it as an additional modality, but I've definitely had success with this approach,” he explains. “While we don't completely understand how it works, increased circulation and stimulation of the immune response are two theorized mechanisms.” 

What are the benefits of cupping the face? 

Cupping isn’t just practiced on the body; it’s also practiced on the face. During facial cupping, small, specialized cups are placed on specific areas in order to provide the skin with a multitude of benefits. According to Auth, the benefits of facial cupping include increased circulation, increased collagen, increased product absorption, the reduction of fine lines and wrinkles, the reduction of puffiness, and a boost in overall skin and jawline toning. “Light suction helps the cups glide across the face and increases circulation, boosts collagen, and relaxes tight muscles in the face,” she says. “It’s like nature’s facelift but better.” 

Celebrity skin and wellness expert Ildi Pekar is another proponent of facial cupping. “Cupping is one of my favorite techniques to use,” she tells HelloGiggles. “It detoxes the skin and draws nutrition to the surface of the face, and by that it helps to achieve a healthy glow.” 

She believes that skin detoxification and lymphatic stimulation are at once extremely important and sometimes underestimated. “The fluid buildup affects our whole body, including our skin,” she explains. “It causes various health problems: uneven skin tone, early aging, and saggy skin. Getting facial cupping—at least seasonally—is a great way to protect our skin’s well-being.” 

As if those benefits don’t sound promising enough, Auth says face cupping can even relax tight muscles in the face, thus easing the tension that causes pain associated with TMJ and sinus pressure headaches. Oh, and one more thing: If you’re worried about circular bruises appearing on your face, don’t be. “Unlike body cupping, face cupping is performed with a continuous sliding motion, so it does not leave a mark that is caused by static cup marks commonly seen on the back and shoulders,” Auth assures. 

Can you try cupping at home?

If you’re looking to try body cupping for the first time, Dr. Firshein recommends that you go to a trained professional. After all, body cupping involves static placement (no swiping motions), and you don’t want to leave a cup on a specific area of your body for too long lest you risk pain or injury.

If you’re looking to try face cupping for the first time, it can’t hurt to consult a professional, although Auth says it’s not a necessity. “Cupping can definitely be done safely at home. WTHN’s Face Cupping Kit is a great way to get started.”

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 Just be sure to do a few things first. Number one is to clean the cups. “Before or after using, make sure to wash the lip of your cup with soapy water or wipe it down with witch hazel or rubbing alcohol,” Auth says. Next, make sure you always apply either an oil or lotion to your skin before using your cup. “This helps the cup glide smoothly and softly across the skin," she explains. And that brings us to the next piece of advice, which is to keep the cup moving. “Keep a steady pace while doing your cupping exercises to avoid leaving a mark (or, as we call them, ‘cup hickies’),” Auth says.