Cupping is traditionally used to relax tight muscles, encourage healing, to relieve pain, and to alleviate the symptoms of colds, flus, and fevers. It has been part of Eastern and Western medical practice, and like acupuncture, is used by many Western physical therapists.The Chinese understanding of cupping is that it draws bad stuff out from deeper layers to the surface. The bad stuff could be heat associated with inflammation, or external pathogenic factors that are associated with colds and flus. It could also be a thing called blood stasis (血瘀 xueyu). When there is poor microcirculation that could be due to tightness or knotting in a muscle this is described as blood stasis; when this muscle is cupped to restore the microcirculation this is seen as removing the blood stasis, even though blood stasis is really a descriptive concept, not a thing.*
This explanatory model is common to traditional practices throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa.
A possible biomedical explanation of how cupping helps with muscle tightness and pain is that it initiates a healing process triggered by the extravasation of blood. This This releases anti-inflammatory modulators and healing factors (eg 1), and encourages phagocytosis to remove partially clotted blood. In this article, cupping guru Bruce Bentley reports that a tissue sample taken from an athlete that had been cupped at the Australian Institute of Sport, was analysed as containing “old blood”: “A Cupping Mark is not a Bruise”.
Cupping can also be used to remove internal pathogenic factors, or even to stimulate acupuncture points and meridians to boost metabolic function.
In a manner similar to Middle Eastern hijama therapy, sometimes a lancet or larger needle is used to puncture the skin, and the cup to encourage blood flow. This is known as wet-cupping.
* The word for making a thing out of a concept is reification (Oxford definition). Some people do it to ‘Science’.
(1) Lowe, Duane. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 29. 10.1016. Cupping therapy: An analysis of the effects of suction on skin and the possible influence on human health.