It’s unusual for a complementary therapy to make international headlines - unless it’s embraced by elite athletes and Academy Award-winning actresses, that is. Cupping may be a branch of 2000 year-old traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but it was only in 2004 that it came to mainstream media attention, when actress Gwyneth Paltrow sported the tell-tale round marks on her back at a premiere. Then the most decorated Olympian of all time, swimmer Michael Phelps, took to the pool at the 2016 Rio Games with large deep-purple circles on his back and cupping became a bona fide global craze.

Shura Ford, a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, has seen a noticeable increase in the number of people seeking cupping treatment. “More people have certainly become more aware of cupping over the last few years,” she says. “People want to try it - but it’s not always what’s best for them. It’s up to practitioners to educate a patient on what is appropriate for their body.”

Boosting energy flow

Cupping involves pressing glass cups onto the skin to create a vacuum that, according to TCM principles, disperses stagnant blood and lymph fluid. As well as easing physical aches and pains, improving blood flow also improves a patient’s qi, or life force energy. Most commonly used on the back, cups can also be applied to the abdomen, limbs and neck. A flame is used to draw oxygen from the cup before it is swiftly applied to the skin, creating suction. Cups can be left in place for a few minutes or up to an hour or longer, depending on the patient’s requirements.

“In Chinese medicine, cupping removes stagnation, congestion and cold from the body,” Ford explains. “Typically it is used for coughs and colds, back pain and headaches. It's also used to remove cold from the abdomen for women’s menstrual health and fertility, and to counter muscle tension due to emotional stress. The results are often immediate, particularly for muscle tension, headaches or respiratory congestion.”

Perth photographer Alex Cearns tried cupping to ease chronic neck and shoulder pain caused by carrying heavy camera equipment all day. “A massage therapist suggested cupping, and said it might alleviate my muscle tension by helping to relax my muscles and reduce spasms.” Cearns' treatment involved lying face-down on a massage table with 12 cups placed along her back - eight in pairs either side of her spine, and two on each shoulder blade and clavicle. “While I couldn’t see the cups, I could hear them being ‘lit’ to suck out the oxygen just before they were placed on my skin. I had them on for about 10 minutes,” she says. “The initial application felt like a pinch, followed by my skin being pulled slowly upwards away from my muscles. After a few minutes, my whole back felt warm. I noticed positive results almost instantly. My neck and back definitely felt better and less stiff. Cupping also seemed to enable targeting specific problem muscle areas.”

Bumps and bruises

Cupping is often used in conjunction with acupuncture and/or massage, but Ford says it is not suitable for everyone, including very elderly patients or pregnant women. “Cupping is mostly used in what is known in Chinese medicine as ‘excess’ conditions, or in active or athletic patients. Very depleted individuals or those with an ‘empty’ pattern (a TCM concept based on the idea that illnesses stem from deficient yin or yang energy) would most likely be recommended an alternative treatment,” she explains.

The therapy has few reported side effects, other than the livid round marks and bruising. “Bruising from cupping can be unsightly but should be painless and will only last a short time, up to a week usually,” Ford says. “The intensity of the bruising will vary according to the amount of vacuum applied to a cup.” Bruising seems a small price to pay to experience a treatment that, in the right circumstances, can deliver fast and dramatic results. “As a practitioner I always find it lovely seeing the before and after change in a patient,” Ford says. “It’s like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders and you know you are making a difference to their quality of life.”

“Cupping got me back on the footy field”

Adelaide journalist Bryan Littlely, 42, tried cupping after a football injury left him sidelined. “I do get regular massage therapy to assist with my health. Cupping is offered by my massage therapist so, on the advice of a friend, I tried it to relieve back and shoulder strain. It was fantastic. Not only did I feel that the strain and pain were relieved, but I felt energised. The reduced muscle strain also had the effect of relieving headaches and pain in other parts of my body where the treatment had not been applied.
“I then used cupping last year to specifically address a hamstring muscle strain sustained playing football. Having torn hamstrings plenty of times before, I rated this strain as up there with the worst I'd had. The cups, about a dozen, were applied only to my injured leg where there was localised internal bleeding from the hamstring tear and bruising had emerged. I assume they circulated the blood through the injured muscle to assist with healing, because it did a good job! I only had one treatment and I was able to run and take to the footy field three weeks after injury, and was back to normal another two weeks after that.
“If I suffer the same type of significant muscle strain again, I would use cupping because it has worked for me. I don't see cupping as a ‘silver bullet’, but it is definitely in the arsenal.”