As a heath reporter, there’s typically a very short list of things you’re curious to try — but don’t — for fear it’ll make for a super awkward story. (Think: Biting massages, underwater acroyoga, eating live octopus — giving these ideas away for free here, people!) But then, when you finally rip the so-called Band-Aid off and try it, it’s sort of the best thing ever. In my last days of 2016, cupping was that crazy-in-a-good-way thing. (Seriously, if anyone hacked into my camera roll right now they’d be horrified. But more on that later.)
Let’s back up, though. Unless you’re all-in on Chinese medicine, your first exposure to cupping was probably while doing a double take at Olympian Michael Phelps’ red-and-purple spotted back. The most decorated swimmer in the world wasn’t shy about showing his love for cupping, the ancient Chinese practice-turned-sports recovery technique for elite athletes everywhere. Phelps — along with fellow Team USA swimmer Natalie Coughlin — hailed cupping as a secret weapon of sorts: reducing muscle tension, speeding recovery and improving overall performance. Gymnast Alex Naddour proclaimed (sans #spon hashtag), “It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”
So like any good over-the-hill former Division III athlete with the back of an 80-year-old man (read: career literally hanging in the balance), I figured cupping was my last shot at greatness.
Cupping Therapy 101
Of course, I knew nothing as I bared all for my impending 60-minute cupping massage at The Spa on Rodeo in Beverly Hills. (Granted, probably the bougiest of all practitioners across the continental U.S.) My technician, Jennifer Cluck, a certified massage therapist and cupping practitioner with more than a decade of experience, agreed to talk me through every step.
No, it wouldn’t be painful. And no, there would be no blowtorches (though a totally-safe “fire cupping” technique is used by some practitioners). Here, the procedure was simple: She would place glass or silicone cups around my major muscle groups, making a suction with the skin to increase blood flow to the area. She’d then leave them there for 10-or-so minutes, referred to as stagnant cupping.
“It’s kind of like a deep-tissue massage, but in reverse.”
Or, you could opt for dynamic cupping — as I did — which has the technician create the same suction, but then continuously move the cups, dragging them toward the lymphatic system, the network of organs and tissues responsible for ridding your body of waste and toxins. (Note: This is the preferred technique if you’re not ready to rock giant red circles on the red carpet a la Gwyneth. Or, if you’re like me, fear scaring your coworkers at your holiday party the following week.)
Cluck applied the first cup, a glass orb with a balloon on top that sucked my skin away from my body like a milkshake from a straw. Nope, not painful. Just slightly uncomfortable and very, very odd. She applied a half-dozen more, sliding them around my oiled-up back like chess pieces on a board. Some areas, where I held the most tension, produced an intense, pinching sensation. But moments after sliding the cup away, a release followed. “It’s kind of like a deep-tissue massage, but in reverse,” Cluck explained. She focused on my low back and glutes, before moving on to my IT band (holy hell). Was she finally righting the area of my body no amount of foam rolling and stretching could cure?
Then I got greedy. “Can we try a stagnant cup?” I had a terrible knot on my right shoulder blade, and Cluck mentioned this would be the best way to address myofascial trigger points and break up lactic acid. It would leave a darker mark, she reminded me (“didn’t you mention spaghetti straps?”). Truth was, I had that same knot on my left side (control group!) and I was secretly inspired to conduct a highly scientific study, right then and there. Cluck found the right-side knot immediately and my skin shot up inside the glass cup. She seemed excited, and I wanted to see. I had her turn on the lights and forced my iPhone into her able hands. “Take lots.” She complied, and handed my phone back to me. Oh my.
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The Science of Cupping
What was happening during Mission: Knot Eradication was more than just tension taming, though. According to Dr. Bobby Pourziaee, foot and ankle surgeon and owner of the Spa on Rodeo, there’s also detoxification at play. But before you roll your eyes at the thought of yet another detox trend, hear the doc out.
“By manually going in and moving things around, you’re able to push toxins from those cells into the lymphatic system.”
The use of cups allows for the stretching and opening of muscle tissue, creating space to drain toxins from your cells, he explains. “By manually going in and moving things around, you’re able to push toxins from those cells into the lymphatic system,” Dr. Pourziaee explains. “Your body naturally does that — your lymphatic system is your body’s filter. But this is a catalyst to give that natural detoxification process a boost.”
Define these so-called “toxins,” you say? “They’re either water soluble or fat soluble, and can come from the environment around you, processed foods you eat, or chemical additives that accumulate in your blood,” Dr. Pourziaee says. “Usually if they’re water soluble, you will naturally urinate them out within 24 to 48 hours. But the ones that are fat soluble stay in and around your fat cells. Those are usually the ones that need an extra boost to get out.”
And an experienced cupping practitioner can help guide them, he says. “In your upper body, your major lymph nodes are under your armpits, so most of the time the cups are moved toward that region. In your lower extremities, your major lymph nodes are in the groin area.”
While Dr. Pourziaee notes that cupping hasn’t been widely studied, some smaller studies have linked cupping to a reduction in short-term pain. Most evidence to date is anecdotal, though, and some critics point to the placebo effect to explain patients’ perceived benefits.
So Did It Work?
Consider me all-in, placebo effect or not. Immediately after the treatment, I Slacked my editors a barrage of OK hand emojis (also code to let them know I was alive). Then I proceeded to creepily selfie my battle wounds in the spa’s ladies room. (Mostly NSFW, hence the stock photos in this post.)
As my therapist noted during our session, my discoloration was fairly faint — a rosy red versus the deep hued markings you might see when Googling “cupping marks.” (Don’t do that, by the way).
“I was somehow completely spent, but also still completely pain-free.”
“You must live a very clean lifestyle,” Cluck noted, before leaving the room. High praise for a health editor. I rotated my arms around to assess my non-double blind tightness test. My right shoulder blade moved freely, knot-free, while the left was still hot mess status. My notoriously achy lower back also felt less symptomatic than when I walked in — possibly a function of just lying there for 60 minutes? I’d have to wait and see…
Later that day, I guzzled several liters of water (seriously, there was not enough water in the California desert to satisfy my thirst), and I peed no fewer than 20 times. Apparently, detoxification is hard work. So hard, in fact, that my lethargy compelled me to clear my workout calendar for that day and the next. I was somehow completely spent, but also still completely pain-free. I pulled out my phone, thumbed through the should-I-send-these-to-all-my-friends photographic evidence, and checked the spa’s availability for my next cupping massage.
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Know-Before-You-Go: Cupping Edition
Brave enough to get cupped? Here are a few things you should know:
1. It’s not as painful as it looks. If you’re a glutton for deep-tissue massage, foam rolling or firm elbow from time to time, you can rest assured you’ll have a pain-free experience. That said, “If you have any really stagnant tissue, you might experience more soreness — but not usually lasting more than 24 hours,” Dr. Pourziaee says. To make your session as comfortable as possible, therapists recommend arriving well hydrated. “If you have ability to steam and shower right before, that’s also good to warm up the tissues.”
“If you show faint marks — you might be a healthier person. But it’s a very general thing.”
2. Those marks don’t lie (for the most part). Darker marks can denote one of two things: Poorer circulation to that part of the body or higher levels of toxicity being brought up to the skin, Dr. Pourziaee says. “If you show faint marks — you might be a healthier person. But it’s a very general thing. I wouldn’t say someone is sick just because they’re showing darker marks. It could just be that certain tissues are very stagnant and have been holding toxins in.” The good news: Most people will experience the benefits of cupping immediately, within their first session, he says.
3. You’ve got options. While there are two popular variations: dynamic and stagnant, some therapists are open to doing a combination of the two. “For swelling in the limbs or the face, dynamic is better. For waking up tissue and recovery, stagnant is better,” Dr. Pourziaee says. There’s also “wet cupping,” which involves creating small, superficial incisions with a scalpel to draw out a small amount of blood — but that technique is less commonly offered in the U.S.
4. Marks will last a day…or much longer. Concerned how long those cupping marks will last? Dynamic cupping will produce fainter marks, typically lingering no more than a day or two, whereas stagnant marks might last anywhere from three days to a couple weeks, Dr. Pourziaee says. (Mine lasted two days and four days, respectively.) As with all things you really want the answer to, there’s no way to know how your body will respond until you try it.
5. Build in some workout buffer room. Even if you’re no “Flying Fish” Phelps, you’ll want to time your cupping massage well. “If you’re making this part of a training regimen, you definitely want your treatment within 24 hours of a really hard workout. And you’ll want to give yourself 24 hours recovery from the treatment before performing again,” Dr. Pourziaee says. As for how often to go? Your average person looking for detox and relaxation might want to go monthly, Dr. Pourziaee recommends. “If this is someone who’s actively training, it will be more frequent than that.”
6. It’s not just body art. The face is also fair game, if you so choose. Some places, including the Spa on Rodeo, offer facial cupping rejuvenation to “plump up fine lines and smooth wrinkles.” The cups are much smaller but the concept is the same: lifting facial tissue to increase circulation. Facial cupping is also offered to patients suffering from TMJ, sinus infection and inflammation. And then there’s cellulite cupping and belly cupping (for IBS and digestion issues), though again, clinical studies are lacking in these area of treatment.
7. East and West will vary. In traditional eastern medicine, cupping is treated as part of a larger holistic practice — one that typically includes nutrition, herbal supplementation and other areas of a person’s health and wellness. Offering cupping as a standalone treatment is a decidedly western thing. If you’re unsure which scenario you’re stepping into, simply call ahead to get the lay of the land. You can also ask about pricing, as it will vary considerably from place to place.
8. Not everyone’s a candidate. While cupping is generally considered safe for most healthy adults, it’s always best to check with your doctor before you go. “If you have certain blood disorders it’s not a good idea to do,” Dr. Pourziaee warns. “Cancer patients, as a general rule, should also avoid it, as you never want to stimulate cancer cells to move from one area to another.”
Lastly, remember that practitioners should be vetted, too. While there isn’t a centralized listing for therapists with cupping certifications, “certifications are offered at independent massage therapy, eastern medicine and cupping schools — and those schools keep lists of people who they have certified,” Dr. Pourziaee says. When in doubt, ask the spa if their cupping therapist is certified. “A non-certified therapist can potentially cause harm,” he says.