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Cupping therapy continues to make an appearance in mainstream media. Notably, we see this treatment method in the remake of Karate Kid. It features Jackie Chan as a wise Karate Instructor who knows the ancient Chinese healing secret. When his student gets injured in a fight, Jackie’s character saves the day by healing his student’s bruises in record breaking time. Additionally, we are also starting to see many professional athletes with the signature round cupping marks on their bodies. In particular, many Olympic swimmers have started to adopt this ancient method for healing the body.  

Cupping Therapy Photo by alan caishan on Unsplash
Photo by alan caishan on Unsplash

What is Cupping therapy?

Though cupping therapy is just starting to gain popular attention, it has been around for a very long time. More specifically, for hundreds of years, cupping has been a large part of Chinese Medicine. Like most components of Chinese Medicine, cupping is used as a tool to facilitate the flow of Qi. Qi is the body’s life energy. In short, Qi flow interruption is the cause of inflammation and disease. Cupping unblocks Qi flow in certain areas of the body. 

Does Cupping really work?

During my time in China, I was fortunate enough to experience cupping first hand (technically second hand). While on a trip to Zhangjiajie, my wife and I had just come back from hiking a mountain. When we returned to the summit, she felt sick. Her neck hurt, her stomach was upset and she felt fatigued. Above all, when you are in a foreign country, any kind of sickness is slightly scarier because it is often harder to find a doctor. Fortunately, our Air BNB Host was a very nice man. He offered to drive us to his personal Chinese doctor. 

Cupping Tools Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash
Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

Finally, after 15 minutes of driving through the city, we arrived at what looked like an apartment building. We walked up a staircase in the back of the building. With our host, we met the doctor. They exchanged a few words in Chinese. Then, he turned to us and said that the doctor would take care of my wife. At this point, my wife was in a lot of pain and was willing to try almost anything. Reluctantly, I entered the apartment building with her. It looked like they were just getting ready to close down the office. Fortunately, in the back of the facility was a candle lit room with two massage tables and many unusual tools. The doctor stopped us to talk before entering the room. In the best Mandarin we could manage we told her what problems my wife was having. Ultimately, after some help from our translation app, we all agreed on a price and package. 

The Preparation

Hesitantly, I sat down in a chair at the edge of the room while the doctor guided my wife to a massage table. Then, ready with my camera for whatever was about to happen I watched the doctor prepare her cups while my wife laid down. Little did we know that my wife had signed up for a full 30 minute massage and cupping session. Looking back, I now know that the massage was also meant to encourage Qi flow. However, at the time, my wife just thought she was getting the most painful massage of her life. Consequently, she kept asking me to look up how to say, “softer” in Mandarin. 

Placing the Cups

After the massage was over, the doctor brought over her tray of cups. One at a time she used a cotton swab to coat the inside of each cup with alcohol. In one swift motion she lit the inside of each cup on fire and then put the cup on my wife’s back. She did this with nine cups. The doctor placed the cups in two rows of 4. The rows were positioned on each side of her spine with one cup right on the back of her neck. The doctor left the cups on her back for about 10 minutes. After the time was up, she pulled them off one at a time. 


We didn’t know how my wife got sick or even what she had. We are certain that whatever it was, cupping kicked it to the curb. After seeing the Chinese doctor, my wife felt relaxed, full of energy, she wasn’t nauseous, and her neck no longer hurt. Therefore, I am not saying that cupping is the cure to all illnesses and everyone should do it but I am a firm believer in cupping as an effective way to reduce muscle stiffness and strengthen the immune system.

How does Cupping Work?

When you light the inside of the cup, you burn the oxygen along with the alcohol. As a result, this creates a difference between the pressure on the inside of the cup and the pressure on the outside of the cup forming a vacuum. Then, before this pressure has time to balance, the cup is placed on the patient’s skin. This causes the cup to draw the patient’s skin and blood to the surface. Further, this also draws white blood cells and anything else the body uses to fix the problem to that area. This is why you see many athletes using cupping. In addition to encouraging blood flow overall, cupping can also speed up healing in a given region. 

Why do Cupping Therapy?

Research is inconclusive on the ability of cupping therapy to treat or cure any disorder or disease. However, studies have shown that cupping can be as effective as more conventional methods at treating issues like non-specific neck pain.

Cupping is mainly a way to reduce pain in the body and relieve muscle tension. It is also a way to help athletes recover more quickly from muscle strain. 

How to do Cupping Therapy

I recommend having a professional perform cupping therapy if you are curious and or this is your first time. However, if you don’t feel like getting any professional assistance, you can do cupping on your own. Well, you will need the help of one other person as is pretty hard to place the cups on your own back. For cupping therapy you will need a table or bed that you can lie down on, 8 or 9 cupping specific cups. Tweezers, a cotton swab, a lighter, rubbing alcohol, some kind of oil for the skin, soap and water. Below is a list of the basic steps of cupping therapy.

  1. Have the patient lie down
  2. Clean the skin and cups with soap and water.
  3. Oil the affected area.
  4. Dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol
  5. Light the cotton swab on fire and grab it with your tweezers.
  6. Place the cotton swab inside of the cup and move it around.
  7. In one quick motion, take the cotton swab out of the cup and place it on the affected area. 

The placement of the cups will vary depending on what ailment you are trying to solve. For a more detailed overview please see the link below.

Sometimes, cupping therapists also use silicon suction cups and pump suction cups. These take the hassle out of playing with fire and make cupping more convenient.

Where to place the Cups

Typically, when I use cupping as a way to relieve tension, I place the cups on the problem area. For example, if I am feeling sore from a long run in my calf, I will place the cups on my calf. However, spot treatment cupping is not the only way to practice cupping.

Since cupping therapy originated from Chinese Medicine, cup placement is heavily influenced by meridians in the body. Meridians are pathways for Qi flow or life energy. The body uses these pathways to send signals so that different systems can synchronize and maintain your health. Each meridian has control over a different set of systems. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, if you place the cups along certain meridians, you can unblock obstacles to your Qi flow that may be causing physical harm. Typically, the cups are place along the main meridians in a patient’s back. However, as seen in the link below, there are many other meridians that you can reference for your next cupping session.

How Do I Find Cupping Near Me?

If you aren’t comfortable buying your own set and doing it yourself, you might consider looking for a cupping professional near you. Below are some tips to keep in mind when searching for a cupping therapist near you.

  • A cupping therapy session normally costs around $50.
  • Often, cupping therapy is a service offered by massage centers, physical therapists, and spas. So, you may have better luck finding a cupping professional if you look in these places.
  • Your cupping therapist will ask you where your problem areas are. Keep in mind that cupping therapy is often used to treat injury or localized tension. Be sure to take note of your reason for cupping so you are prepared.
  • A cupping therapy session can last close to one hour.
  • In many places, cupping therapy is still considered an uncommon method of treatment so you may need to do some searching before you find a cupping therapist near you.


Cupping Therapy has been a part of Chinese medicine for thousands of years as a way to relieve pain and treat imbalances in the body. Overall, studies are inconclusive on the use of cupping as a viable method for treating disease. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that cupping is a useful way to reduce pain and stiffness in the body.

Please leave a comment below with your Cupping Therapy experience.