Gwyneth Paltrow showed up at a film premiere in 2004 with large, reddish-purple, circular bruises covering her bare back.
Naturally, it prompted a media frenzy, leaving many, including me, wondering just what she did in her spare time. Turns out she was into cupping therapy. And it’s really not so bizarre after all.
What is cupping?
Cupping is an ancient Chinese method that involves suctioning skin and tissue up into what is usually a glass cup that slightly resembles a light bulb. There are two methods to do this. One involves putting heat into the cup, such as a burning cotton ball soaked in alcohol, removing it, then quickly pressing the cup onto the skin. In the other method, the cup is placed on the body and the air is sucked out with a pump.
This process is said to move the qi (often spelled as chi and known as prana in yoga), also known as the life force, through the energetic channels of the body. The Chinese believe a pain that is pinpointed is a result of blood stagnation and poor circulation. Cupping helps move that blood stagnation and promote a healthy flow of qi.
Shelly Greene is a local acupuncturist who is certified in Oriental Medicine by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists. She owns Peaceful Points, where she uses cupping therapy in addition to acupuncture. She mostly uses cupping for back pain in adults, and usually in conjunction with an acupuncture treatment. She mostly places the cups on a patient’s back where it’s “nice and meaty,” she said. Occasionally she’ll do it on arms and legs, but never directly on bones or arteries. Digestive issues can also be treated with cups on the belly.
Greene also treats children, mostly for breathing and congestion problems. Parents often ask her to write notes for the kids’ schools due to the one, not-insignificant side effect of cupping -- the giant bruise. It could lead to the impression the kids are being beaten at home, she said.
I got cupped. Greene gave me a tiny taste of the therapy, having me lie face down on her massage table. You’ll remain clothed, though depending on where the cups are being placed, you might need to bare your back. She placed two cups on the middle of my back, one at a time, sucking the air out with a pump. My skin and the underlying tissue filled up the glass dome which I was only able to see because she kindly took a photo with her cell phone. It’s slightly disconcerting to see. I didn’t realize my skin could contort like that. It was pain-free and felt a little like I was getting plunged with a toilet plunger. In a much more pleasant way. Others have described it as being hugged, or attacked, by a giant octopus.
Sometimes oil is rubbed into the area and the cups are then moved up and down the long muscles in the back. Greene demonstrated on me and it felt like a nice, strong massage.
Cups are generally left on around 10 minutes or so, depending on the patient. Mine were only left on for a minute or two and didn’t leave any telltale marks when I checked in the mirror an hour later.
The treatment is usually described as deeply relaxing and enjoyable, with no adverse effects. However, Greene said, it’s not recommended for those with open lesions or bleeding disorders.