Swimmer Michael Phelps brought cupping to the attention of the world during the recent Olympic Games. He used it to help his muscles recover between events, because it invigorates the circulation. That effect gives cupping many related uses. Far from a new fad, cupping is ancient medicine around the world.
The Egyptians knew it well, as written in the Ebers Papyrus of 1550 BCE. Cupping was used by the father of Western medicine, the Greek physician, Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE). In China’s Spring and Autumn period, the philosopher-physician Ge Hong originated the popular aphorism, “Acupuncture and cupping — half of all illnesses cured.” Cupping followed trade routes such as the northern and southern silk roads, spreading all over Asia and Europe. The Arabs carried it everywhere they traded; Muhammad spoke highly of it, and it was used in Jewish medicine also.
Even here in the southern Appalachians, the mountaineers, descended from Scots-Irish, English, and German settlers, knew how to do cupping, and in the recent past it was done with jelly jars. So cupping became not just a tool of physicians, but entered the realm of popular folk medicine everywhere. Many families in East and Southeast Asia know how to use it, and it is taken for granted, like band-aids or aspirin. But there are cautions and contraindications, and no one should try to use it without knowing what they are doing. Practitioners of Chinese medicine have lots of training and experience in cupping. There is an art to using the right amount, in the right places, at the right time. Fire-cupping is traditional, but cupping with a vacuum pump also works well.
In Chinese medicine, cupping of specific places in the upper back is well-known to help lessen the severity and shorten the duration of the common cold. We also use it for pain that involves blood stasis or stagnation. The vacuum of the cups lifts the tissues away from the bone, pulling stagnant blood toward the surface so that fresh new blood can come in from underneath. Mechanically, it loosens muscles that are stuck together, and frees restrictions in the connective tissue. In many cases the pain relief is dramatic and immediate.
The dark purple marks you saw on Michael Phelps do not always happen, but when they do, it is taken as a sign that cupping was needed. If strong cupping leaves no marks, then stagnation was not present at that location. In any case, the marks are usually gone in a week. Mild cupping (with low suction) typically doesn’t leave marks, and is used to tonify or strengthen weakness, rather than relieve pain or expel pathogens.
Skeptics will want to know the “science” behind it, but does it matter how it works? Thousands of years of experience are enough science to show that cupping can be very helpful in treating a variety of conditions.
And most people find that cupping just feels good, once they get past the thought of it, and the strangeness of it. It can be a very relaxing experience. It’s like the muscles are breathing a sigh of relief.