History of Cupping

The History of Cupping

The therapy of fire cupping has been utilized by the Chinese for thousands of years, but its origins can be traced back as far the ancient Egyptians in the third century BCE. It has even been said that Hippocrates and Galen were great advocates of cupping. Early recordings describe creating a partial vacuum in animal horns, bamboo tubes, or clay pots, and then applying them to the skin of an individual. The negative pressure created caused the underlying tissue to be pulled into the cup, resulting in an increase of blood flow to the area. This therapy was used to treat a wide range of ailments and was even used in emergency medical situations.

Most recently, cupping popularity peaked after many witnessed Michael Phelps in the Rio Olympics with these large circular looking marks on his back. If the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 28 medals, was finding benefit from this treatment, everyone figured that there must be something to it. Many news outlets started researching its history and found that it had roots in various civilizations and cultures, and even had modern medical terminology used to describe it as “myofascial decompression release”. Regardless of when and where it truly started, cupping is and has always been an integral part of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture, and we do our best here at The Root Acupuncture clinic to continue those traditions.

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How does your office perform cupping?

Today, we use specialized glass or silicone cups that have been properly cleaned and sterilized prior to each use. A cotton ball soaked in alcohol is used to create a flame that is briefly placed inside the glass cup to create a vacuum effect. The cup is then placed onto the skin of the patient, which creates a pulling action up and away from the body. Cupping can be best summarized as a “reverse massage” – instead of digging into the skin to help relax and loosen your muscles/tendons/fascia, we use a pulling action instead to create an entirely new way of helping your physical body to relax.

The method described above is what we call Fire Cupping and it is the only way that we do things in our clinic – it is the most traditional method of cupping and the form that we find most effective.

Another form of Fire Cupping, called massage cupping is also an option.  In massage cupping, a topical liniment is also applied to the skin of the patient before the fire cupping treatment begins – this further increases blood flow to the area and also allows us to comfortably slide the cups along the surface of the skin while maintaining the suction in the cups.  Massage cupping is also called dynamic cupping, gliding cupping, and moving cupping.


How are we different?

Some other clinics use plastic cups that have rough edges and are suctioned onto the body with a hand pump mechanism – while we understand that every clinic and practitioner are different, we find that these plastic cups are painful and do not provide a balanced treatment for our patients. We always strive to make your experience here at our clinic the best possible and will always use top of the line products in everything that we do.


We primarily use traditional fire cupping in our clinic as a way to alleviate pain and tightness in the body, improve overall range of movement, detoxify the body, and help alleviate colds and other respiratory ailments and promote relaxation. As mentioned before, most individuals find the experience to be very enjoyable (with many people even describing results that surpass a traditional deep tissue massage). We commonly treat the back and shoulders, but cups can be applied to most areas of the body where it is needed.

The following conditions are often treated with cupping:

  • Low-back pain: Do you have low-back pain?  Have you done something to strain your lower back and now have difficulty moving, lifting objects and discomfort with sitting or standing?  Cupping may be helpful to you as it can reduce pain and inflammation, sooth sore muscles and improve your mobility.  
  • Fibromyalgia: Fibromyalgia usually involves widespread musculoskeletal pain leading to fatigue, poor sleep, and mood changes. Cupping massage, particularly in conjunction with acupuncture and conventional medicine is known to relieve pain due to fibromyalgia.  If you are suffering from this condition, contact The Root Acupuncture to see how traditional Chinese medicine, including cupping, could help you.   
  • Chronic Neck Pain: By creating negative pressure, cupping draws blood and therefore oxygen to the tight muscles in the neck.  In addition, applying heat as part of Flame Cupping dilates blood vessels and increases blood flow.  This combination of negative pressure and heat releases muscle tension and causes tight muscles to relax and become more flexible.  The resulting improved circulation also helps the elimination of lactic acid. 
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) is the result of pressing or squeezing of the median nerve which runs from the forearm into the palm of the hand.  Cupping for carpal tunnel should be used in conjunction with traditional therapies.  While cupping cannot cure carpal tunnel, it can have a demonstrable effect on the symptoms.  Cuppings negative pressure temporarily removes the pressure on the median nerve which can help with pain, blood flow and nerve function. 
  • Heavy menstrual bleeding:  Dry cupping may help decrease the amount of menstrual blood flow in women with menorrhagia (excessive menstrual bleeding) or the pain of cramps from dysmenorrhea (severe cramping related to a period).  For women experiencing excessive bleeding or painful cramps cupping therapy can be very helpful.   Studies have shown that cupping therapy can reduce painful periods and if used regularly, can help regulate menstrual cycles and help menorrhagia.  Efficacy of Hijamat Bila Shurt (Dry Cupping) on Intensity of Pain in Dysmenorrhoea-A Preliminary Study – PMC (  
  • Digestive issues: Cupping provides a massaging action to the abdomen.  Massaging the abdomen relaxes the stomach muscles which can help relieve constipation and promote digestion.  
  • Diseases of the lungs and airways: If you have anything from a cold to pneumonia, including bronchitis and asthma, cupping can be used to shorten the amount of time one is sick and lessen the symptoms.  If you recognize that you are getting sick and get cupping as soon as possible, there is a good chance that the illness could be limited to 24-48 hours.  If you already are sick, cupping can still help shorten the length of the illness by stimulating the immune system.  It can also help break up phlem in your chest so your body can eliminate it. 
  • Cellulite (fat deposits beneath the skin that cause a dimpled appearance):  Cupping is an excellent way to treat cellulite.  Cupping is, in fact, one of the only ways to treat cellulite.  The massage action of cupping smooths connective tissue adhesion that causes the appearance of dimples in the skin.  Cupping also increases blood circulation, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the site rejuvenating the skin.  Finally, cupping stimulates the lymphatic system, part of the body’s detoxification process, which helps reduce fluid retention.

Over 90% of our patients love the sensation of cupping and it is usually the most requested modality to wrap up our regular follow-up acupuncture treatments. The most common feeling is a sense of pressure or tightness.  Some people liken it to a deep tissue massage.  Even those who feel some discomfort consider the small amount of pain “good pain” because, like a deep tissue massage, it is an indication of something working.  The remaining 10% of patients find that the sensation is a little too tender for them.

Like any medical treatment, everyone is different and responds differently to various modalities in Chinese medicine and acupuncture. If a patient does find that sliding the cups on the back feels a little too tender, we usually make adjustments to ease the strength of the cups, try lighter silicon cups, or simply leave the cups in stationary areas one at a time (i.e. pulling the cup off the skin, relighting the cup, and placing it on a new area) to make it a more comfortable experience.

It might seem counterintuitive that if you use a flame to heat glass or silicone that the cup would not burn the skin when it is applied.  Fire cupping works by lighting a fire source, putting inside the cup and then, after a moment, removing the flame and placing the cup on the skin.  When the flame is inserted into the cup  Not to worry, it’s not hot – it works with pressure. As the air inside the cup is heated, it expands (just like in a hot air balloon) but the actual glass or silicone does not heat up. When the practitioner places the cup on the skin the air cools instantly and the air shrinks, creating a vacuum.  The vacuum causes the skin to be drawn up slightly into the cup creating the effect needed to provide relief. 

The whole process typically takes between 15 to 20 minutes at the end of a regular follow-up treatment, or an extended 30 minute a la carte treatment can also be booked as a separate service. While there are various styles that we use in our clinic while performing fire cupping (e.g. slide cupping, stationary cupping, and/or flash cupping), the cups can often leave red/purple marks on the back, known as petechiae, that will usually fade away between 2 to 10 days. For this reason, we typically discourage getting cupping done if you plan to expose your back in a future activity where it might not be appropriate (ex: being the bridesmaid in a wedding or sporting a backless dress at an event), unless you don’t mind the extra attention. A lot of our patients love the cupping marks and wear them proudly – in a funny way, they are like walking billboards for our services. We can’t tell you how many lifelong patients that we have gotten after they approached a patient at the pool inquiring about the marks on their back and where they got it done.

The petechiae markings mainly appear in areas of stagnant blood flow on the body (i.e. areas where there was not proper blood flow and circulation in the body). The cupping marks are not painful to the touch – at most they can feel a little sensitive the first day, like the new skin after a peeled sunburn. The ointment we use on the back also has menthol and camphor in its ingredients to give your back a cooling “icy hot” or “tiger balm” feeling. The marks will fade away as the body increases overall blood flow to the area to further aid in the healing and recovery process.

Some people visit a practitioner two or three times weekly for cupping sessions. Depending on the method you use, you may need to give your skin time to recover. Your practitioner can help you determine the best frequency for your condition.

Potential side effects

Generally speaking, cupping is safe.  Some people experience minor side effects at the time cupping is being done or over the hours and days following.  These may include: 

Erythema (skin redness at the site where the cups were place)

Ecchymosis (skin discoloration due to minor blood vessels being ruptured, like a hickey!)

light-headedness or feeling dizzy when standing after a treatment

Exacerbation of psoriasis or eczema at the site where the cups were placed

Who Should Not Get Cupping

Cupping is a very valuable treatment for many health issues. However, like anything, there are people who should not use cupping. There are certain medical conditions for which cupping is contraindicated. If you have one of these conditions, there are many other treatments we have to help you including acupuncture and herbal medicine:

  • Epilepsy
  • Hemophilia
  • History of Stroke
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Hypersensitivity of the skin
  • Breaks in the skin like open wounds or skin ulcers
  • Heart disease/Heart failure
  • Certain Medications – particularly blood thinners
  • Children under 4 years old and the elderly: Due to the very elastic skin of the very young and the delicate nature of the elderly, there is a larger risk of severe marking or damage from the cupping.
  • Pregnant women: Since cupping creates pressure, cupping should not be used on the lower back, or the abdomen on a pregnant woman. Cupping can create the risk of early contractions. During pregnancy, cupping should not be applied to the lower back and the lower and upper abdomen.

If you are in Lakewood or Wheat Ridge or the surrounding areas, and are interested in trying cupping or learning whether it might be helpful for you, contact The Root Acupuncture today!