Everything You Need to Know About Cupping

First, Jennifer Anniston sported weird marks that news reports said looked like they came from a massage therapy technique called cupping. Then, stars like Natalie Coughlin, Kelly Osborne, and David Arquette Tweeted about doing it. Cupping advocates say it can cure anything from back pain to acne. Never heard of it? Here’s your crash course on practice:

What it is

Cupping, an ancient Chinese remedy, is rooted in the belief that health problems stem from stagnant blood and a low energy flow. So to increase blood circulation, a practitioner applies glass, rubber, or bamboo cups to the affected area and creates suction, either with a flame that creates a vacuum in the cup (the more traditional method) or with a hand-held gun-like device that sucks the air out through a hole at the top of the cup.

Because the suction draws blood to the affected area, the oxygen supply is increased and tension and inflammation are reduced, says Dr Jennifer Solomon, a physiatrist in physical medicine at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. The practice is common in China’s hospital system and is also used as a form of alternative medicine all over the world. In the U.S., cupping is primarily used to alleviate stiffness and pain in the neck, back, and shoulders and to help cure some respiratory illnesses, says Robert MacDonald, director of healing at Exhale Spa and CEO of International Health and Wellness, a practitioner of cupping for over a decade.

What to expect

If you want to give cupping a try, look for an acupuncture practice or a larger spa, that offers it. After making your appointment (which will typically last 30 to 60 minutes), have a discussion with your practitioner about the goals of the cupping session and what you hope to fix. He or she will then decide on the exact type of cupping you’ll receive: There’s stationary cupping, where the cups remain in one spot, or sliding cupping, where the practitioner uses oil to glide cups in a specific pattern over your skin. MacDonald says that the procedure shouldn’t be painful, although you may experience minimal surface sensitivity in the first few hours after treatment. The most noticeable side effects are those hickey-looking marks dotting the backs of celebrities who cup. They usually fade within a week (that’s about when the relief you experience as a result of cupping is supposed to fade, too).

Does it work?

Although limited research exists on the effectiveness of cupping therapy, the studies available suggest that cupping can in fact be an effective treatment for lower back pain, neck pain, and knee osteoarthritis. While cupping is a safe alternative therapy, it works best when combined with more conventional approaches, says Solomon. As a precautionary measure, cupping around the adnominal or lower back area is not recommended if you are pregnant, and Solomon urges her patients to advise practitioners about any allergies they have (to avoid potential reactions to oil used or to the glass, plastic, or bamboo cups). She also recommends that you communicate with your therapist during the treatment to assure that the cupping is not too aggressive so you can avoid skin trauma.

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