An Ancient Practice gaining Modern Acceptance
by Dr. Tom Ingegno, DACM
About four years ago Michael Phelps dove into the Rio Olympics covered in perfectly circular “bruises” all over his body. The next day the local ABC news affiliate was in my clinic filming a story on this “new and exciting” therapy that grandmothers around the world have been performing for at least 4000 years.
The story was picked up around the country leading to many anchors recycling some form of an octopus joke. Cupping therapy had made a huge splash, (apologies for the equally bad pun), in the sports recovery world, but there was nothing “new” about it. In fact, there are probably few therapies with a longer, global history.
The History of Cupping Therapy
As a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, I’d love to think that acupuncture was the oldest healing modality around, at least as a formalized system, but cupping has at least 1000 years on acupuncture. Cupping’s origin story is a little murky as it isn’t entirely clear which country or civilization first developed the technique.
The most likely suspects are Persia, Greece, or ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphs on Egyptian architecture discuss cupping, it’s mentioned heavily in the Koran and the “father of modern medicine,” Hippocrates compiled volumes on cupping therapy.
It’s entirely possible that one of these civilizations is responsible for cupping making a near-global presence in the ancient world. Traveling along the Silk Road, cupping reached Asia, Africa, Europe, and Russia.
Interestingly, South America developed cupping, referred to as Ventosa, which has an equally long history of therapeutic use. It’s interesting to think whether it was discovered separately, or if the ancient world wasn’t as isolated as we think.
One personal story of cupping’s worldwide acceptance was when I was teaching at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in NYC. The campus was somewhat of an international melting pot, hosting students with backgrounds around the world. When we would discuss cupping therapy, students regardless of their ancestry would tell me, “Grandma used to do that to me.”
While Phelps brought this therapy front and center, it wasn’t exactly out of the public eye in the States either. The 1920’s classic film, Zorba the Greek demonstrates cupping and Nonna in The Godfather II performs cupping on the infant, Fredo, for some respiratory condition that made him weak.
What Is Cupping Therapy?
You’ve seen the marks, and the name would suggest that some kind of cup is the cause, but exactly what is cupping therapy? The simplest explanation is that cupping is a therapeutic technique that uses a vacuum created inside a cup to help improve circulation and increase space between the skin, fascia (connective tissue), and the muscles.
The “space” created by the cups allows room for inflammation to come up out of deeper tissue, where it can be recirculated to the core of the body to be processed while pulling fresh blood into the area to allow healing and relaxing of muscles.
The fresh blood has oxygen and nutrients that bathe the surrounding area which allows for relief of pain and tissue repair. The “bruises” which are technically called ecchymosis are caused as the vacuum pulls the skin and ruptures the small capillaries at the surface.
Cupping therapy can be applied by creating a vacuum using fire or some form of a pump, but the therapeutic results should be the same. Cups in the ancient world were often made of clay, bamboo, or water buffalo horn, while modern-day cups are made of glass, silicone, or plastics.
What Does The Cupping Therapy Procedure Look Like?
This can vary depending on who is performing it, but there are some similarities across the board. Usually, your therapist will start with an intake, asking what areas are bothering you or what health conditions are you experiencing.
Then the practitioner will apply the cups to the areas using either a traditional fire method or using a more modern suction pump. The cups will remain on the skin for anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes depending on several factors like how strong they are applied, how dark the bruising becomes, and what technique is being used.
What Does Cupping Therapy Feel Like?
The sensation is mild to moderate and although unusual isn’t normally painful. It feels like the skin is being pulled up in a small circle. If it seems too intense the practitioner can adjust the strength of the cup, although the sensation usually eases up as the skin and underlying tissue relaxes. You shouldn’t feel the bruise.
That Sounds Great But Do You Have Any Proof It Works?
Well, yes, if thousands of years of anecdotal evidence aren’t enough, there are plenty of modern studies to back up most of cupping therapies claims. In fact, a systematic review, which is a look at all the current studies was performed in 2018 for cupping therapy and the treatment of back pain, which showed good results for the treatment of musculoskeletal pain.
Other studies have shown positive effects for allergies, respiratory disorders, and even shingles. While there has been a long history of using cupping for these conditions, there are fewer studies that have been performed.
Cupping clearly is not a fad. Perhaps the gaining popularity shows a shift in the public’s thoughts on healthcare, putting the focus on staying healthy rather than running to get treatment when something is wrong.
Cupping therapy has all the important factors to be considered Evidence-Based Medicine; a long history of safe use, plenty of practitioners who have had good results, and modern-day research. If you are suffering from pain or are just looking to recover from a particularly intense workout, cupping may become your go-to therapy.
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Dr. Tom owns and operates Charm City Integrative Health, a multifaceted clinic that NYT bestseller and futurist David Houle called, the “Future of Medicine.” His clinic provides a multidimensional approach to reducing inflammation, improving circulation, and regulating the immune system to help people thrive.
Dr. Tom has taught at two universities of East Asian Medicine, is a published author, and former Chair of the Maryland Board of Acupuncture. He served as director of a chain of wellness centers in the mid-Atlantic.
Dr. Tom has been featured in both consumer and professional media spreading his message of health using modern research, traditional practices and, humor to make complex theories and treatments understandable. His professional passion is to help patients and like-minded practitioners develop no-nonsense practices to allow people to thrive.
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