Cupping is the term applied to a technique that uses small glass cups as suction devices that are placed on the skin. By using an alcohol-soaked cotton pad then lighting it, and putting the cup immediately against the skin. Flames are never used near the skin and are not lit throughout the process of cupping, but rather are a means to create the heat that causes the suction within the small cups.
The suction in the cups causes the skin and superficial muscle layer to be lightly drawn into the cup. Cupping is much like the inverse of massage – rather than applying pressure to muscles, it uses gentle pressure to pull them upward. For most patients, this is a particularly relaxing and relieving sensation. Once suctioned, the cups are generally left in place for about ten minutes while the patient relaxes.
The Discolourations/Marks left by the Cups
or ‘When a ‘Bruise’ is not a Bruise!’ What do they represent?
A common and unfortunate misconception concerning cupping is the misinterpretation of the marks – those round circles you can see in the above photo – that often appear during and after a cupping treatment. These are not satisfactorily explained as bruises, and therefore should not be referred to as ‘cupping bruises’.
Rather they are ‘discolourations’ or ‘marks’ which only occur when the therapeutic cupping process has successfully drawn pathogenic factors to the skin surface. Usually also, within 24 hours, there is a very noticeable change and they are typically resolved in a few days. ‘Bruising’ is incorrect because it gives the impression that they result from a traumatic procedure. A handful of good explanations why they are not bruises include:
- When we have a bruise (due to trauma), experience tells us that it is tender to touch. After proper cupping there is no such accompanying tenderness.
- By definition, a bruise is the result of trauma cause by the impact of a flat surfaced object. This is certainly not the case with a hollow cupping vessel.
- Many times cupping does not produce a show of discolouration.
- Let us imagine a case where a cup has been placed on a part of the body and has produced a strong discolouration (maybe even a deep dark circle – inevitably when there is a long term problem). After that has resolved and another cup is reapplied at the same spot, the marking is typically only a half as ‘ferocious’ as the former time. Then again another application at that same location brings only a faint and barely coloured showing. Usually by the fourth treatment, no skin colour change is likely – even though each time the cup has been focussed on the same spot for the the same duration and with the same force. Clearly a case where the internal unwanted pathogens/toxins have systematically been resolved.
- In those parts of the world where cupping is a part of the national culture, and in those traditional medical systems and folk medical practices in which cupping is valued, the colourations have never been interpreted in a negative way.