How Cupping Can Help Your Pain

By Katherine MacKenzie, L.Ac.

What is cupping?

Cupping is a simple method of pulling “stuck,” stagnant, and congealed blood and fluids out of the injured area. Plastic or glass cups are placed on the skin and then applied using suction. Cups are kept on from three to fifteen minutes, according to the judgment of the acupuncturist. Cupping releases tight, painful muscles and increases blood circulation.

How does cupping help my injury?

After any injury, areas that you hurt are areas that now have a blockage of blood and body fluids. Injured joints become swollen and painful. Backs become stiff, painful and difficult to move. This blockage of blood and body fluids that accompanies an injury is like a beaver dam. The force of the accident or injury creates the initial obstruction – the sticks, mud and leaves of the dam. The free flowing water of the mountain stream is slowed down to a small trickle as stagnant water backs up behind the dam. And like the water of a beaver dam, which can cause flu like symptoms for those who swim in it, the stagnant blood and body fluids that occur at the injury can cause pain and inflammation. Just as the still waters of a beaver dam heat up in the sunlight, stagnant blood and fluids in our body are heated up by our naturally warm body temperatures.

Eventually, with time, the body may be able to unblock these injured areas and return to healthy circulation. Sometimes, even after surgery, the injured area continues to hurt, and never feels completely the same. That’s why you come to get acupuncture and therapy – to speed up the rate at which you heal, and to increase your body’s ability to heal itself completely. But to do this, the beaver dam has to be moved so that blood can flow through the injured area, healing the injured muscles, joint, tendons, and bones. If the area is still blocked and "dammed up" then the body cannot properly heal.

A good example of blood and body fluids that are "dammed up" or stagnant is a blood clot. After an accident, small blood vessels are ruptured, causing blood to collect in muscles. This blood then is heated up the body temperature, and begins to act like glue. The muscles, which have tightened up in response to the accident, now have "glue" holding the muscle fibers together even tighter. The joints, which have joint fluid, stuck blood, and white blood cells, minerals, nutrients all congealing in the area, become stiff and painful as these do not move along back into circulation a week after the injury, but instead begin to stick in the joint area, and sometimes even swell up. Tears and sprains are not able to heal as circulation is not repaired, and as the area is painful to use, one tends to keep it as still as possible…and not using the injured area at all can also prevent blood flow from circulating properly and thus healing the injury.

Acupuncture uses acupuncture needles to increase the flow of blood to the area so that an injury can heal faster and better than it would without acupuncture. But if the area is badly dammed up, and circulation is increased, the dam just begins to get bigger and bigger. Increasing circulation actually makes it worse but only because first, the dam needs to be moved, and then increasing the circulation of the water (the injury) will assist the body’s healing process. This is where cupping really helps.

What is the real purpose behind cupping?

One purpose of cupping is to relieve the pain of tight and sore muscles. This is done by pulling the muscle fibers into the cup. This loosens the muscles and relieves pain. It also pulls the stuck blood within the muscle onto the surface of the skin. This occurs when an injury ruptures small blood vessels within the muscle fibers, causing blood to collect in the muscle and "glue" the already tight muscle fibers together. Cupping is able to pull the congealed blood out of the muscle and onto the surface of the skin.

Another purpose of cupping is to pull blood and body fluids up to the surface of the skin, removing it from stuck areas like swollen knee joints or frozen shoulders. As a result, cupping will often produce a red or purple circle upon the skin that may take a few days to heal. These circles are only dark colored if the area that is cupped has "stuck" body fluids and blood. You should expect some circular discoloration or bruising if you are cupped. Keep in mind, this is only occurring because stuck fluids and blood congeal and act like glue, keeping joints stiff and swollen and gluing muscle fibers. These circular discolorations and bruising occur in the process of drawing these stuck fluids and blood out of injured areas – they are part of the healing process.

As you improve with each treatment, the circular discolorations will become less and less red. Everyone heals at their own pace, and some of the healing will also depend on how physically active you are, how well you treat your body (diet, posture, stress levels), and how often you come to therapy. Bottom line, this is your healing process, and your treatment, so you have to honor your body and accept however long it takes to get better.

What should I be cautious about?

If you are very concerned with bruising or discoloration, cupping may not be the right therapy for you. Since cupping marks take a few days to heal, please consider if you are going to the beach or to an event where you will be revealing the cupped area.

If you are pregnant, have a circulation disorder, hemophilia, lupus, or diabetes, cupping may not be appropriate for you. Although cupping does release tight muscles and increase blood circulation and move congealed body fluids, bruising and bleeding may sometimes occur.

Source: A TOOTH FROM THE TIGER'S MOUTH: How to Treat Your Injuries with Powerful Healing Secrets of the Great Chinese Warriors by Tom Bisio (Simon & Schuster, October, 2004



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