Celebrities love their crazy health kicks (remember Demi Moore and her leeches?). But the latest thing stars like Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham are into—a traditional Chinese therapy called cupping—could turn out to be more than a passing fad.
Tabloid stories claim celebs seek out the cups for vague, fluffy-sounding reasons, such as stress relief or “rejuvenation,” but they’re more likely doing it for far less glamorous reasons, like aches and pains. “Cupping often works best for neck pain or upper and lower back pain—mostly musculoskeletal problems,” explains Robin Fan, an oriental medicine specialist and assistant professor at the National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, IL. In cupping, an acupuncturist or other complementary medicine provider sucks the air out of small glass, metal or plastic cups—usually by heating them or using a pump—to create a vacuum, and then attaches the cups to the patient’s skin. Cups can be left on anywhere from a few seconds to up to 15 minutes. The longer you leave them on and the more suction you create, the more intense the treatment.
The cups often leave dark, bruise-like marks that fade in about a week. But the marks aren’t painful, notes Janet Shaffer, a licensed acupuncturist at Duke University Integrative Medicine in Durham, NC, and if it’s done right, the process itself shouldn’t hurt either. “The cups can feel pinchy at first if they’re in a tender spot, but if it’s truly uncomfortable, then the suction may be too strong or it’s not the right treatment for you,” she says.
But does cupping really work? So far, the answer isn’t clear, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Solid scientific research on cupping and other traditional Chinese medicine tactics is very limited. (The exception: acupuncture, which has been shown to help with chronic pain, among other ailments.) But Shaffer says she’s seen real pain relief in her cupping patients, especially those with old, stubborn muscle or joint injuries that don’t seem to respond to other more proven strategies. “I hope we get some more, better research on cupping soon,” says Shaffer. “It’s becoming a favorite technique for massage therapists and physical therapists so that could be really helpful in moving the research along as more fields are getting interested.”
The traditional belief is that cupping works by tugging on and rebalancing the qi, or life force. But Shaffer has a bit of a more Western-friendly explanation: “It’s like massage except that rather than pushing in to stimulate, this is more like a pull,” she says. “It increases circulation and pulls blood into capillaries that are closer to the surface and helps stretch the fascia of your muscles.”
Shaffer has found cupping works best in patients with long-lasting, chronic issues such as hip bursitis, aches and spasms, sciatica or low-back or buttock pain. Because the method is unproven and considered complementary or experimental, health insurance plans may not cover it.
If you decide to try out cupping, go to someone licensed to practice acupuncture, physical therapy or Chinese medicine who has experience with the treatment. “It’s a fairly simple thing to learn, but there can be blistering of the skin if someone is too aggressive,” says Shaffer.
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