Fire Cupping - An In-Depth Look at One of Our Favorite Treatments

Fire cupping

So, you know that tight, painful feeling in your neck from hours of working on the laptop and staring at your phone? Perhaps your shoulders feel tight and ropy, and you feel like the Hunchback of Notre Desk. And maybe you have a headache too, something dull and achy that starts at the base of your skull, then travels over the top of your head to your eyes, or through the side of your head to your temple.

You have a case of “tech neck”, and cupping is your new best friend.

You may have heard people talk about cupping. Or, maybe you’ve just heard me talk about cupping, because I’m completely in love with it. I love getting it, I love giving it, and I think it’s really effective! Plus, it leaves neat marks on your back that scream, “Hey, I just did something really good for myself and saw my acupuncturist!”.

What is cupping all about anyway?

How it works

Cupping refers to the practice of using glass or plastic cups to create a suction effect on the skin. Cupping is most often performed on bare skin on the neck, shoulders, back, and hips, but can be done almost anywhere! If I think a cup will stick, I'll try it.

With glass cups, a suction effect is created by placing an inverted glass cup over a flaming alcohol-soaked cotton ball, which removes the oxygen from the cup and creates a vacuum. The cup is then quickly placed on the surface of the skin, and “sucks” the skin up inside. The cup isn’t hot when applied, and flame never comes in to contact with the skin — the fire merely serves the purpose of creating the suction necessary to perform the treatment.

Plastic cups use a pump gun tool to suck the air out of the cup while it is in contact with the patient’s skin. Plastic cups can be placed in very exacting ways, and I love using them around the knees and shoulders. Although I tend to use glass cups more often than plastic cups, I think plastic cups are a great option!

Once applied to the skin, cups can be left stationary or be moved over the surface of the skin (often called “gliding” or “sliding” cupping) using oil or lotion as a lubricant. Cups are generally left in place for 5-10 minutes, and sometimes, I'll do another round in different locations. The cups will feel tight, but should not be painful. Most of my clients say it feels “weird” at first, then they get used to it after the first few cups. Then they say it feels “awesome”!

We also have small silicone cups at the clinic, which are soft, flexible, and easy to use. I use silicone cups most often on the neck and face. Yep, you read that right - I can cup your face! Facial cupping is much more gentle than other forms of cupping, using very mild suction and continuous movement - we don't want to leave marks! Facial cupping is a great option to address jaw tension, sinus congestion, headaches, and to brighten and smooth the complexion. 

What it does

The suction and negative pressure created through cupping increases blood circulation, loosens muscles and connective tissue, clears “heat”, and creates a soothing, sedating effect on the nervous system. It also helps to draw out dead or stagnant blood cells, cellular debris, lymph fluid, and toxins out of the deeper tissues and up toward the surface, allowing for easier release from the body and improving overall blood circulation to the area.

From a Chinese medicine perspective, cupping “opens” the channels, the pathways in the body through which qi (dynamic life force energy) flows. A free flow of qi is necessary to support the function of the body’s tissues and organs. When that flow is obstructed, and the qi and blood are stagnant, pain and dysfunction results. Cupping helps to improve the flow of qi and blood, allowing for improved function and healing.

What can cupping treat?

Cupping can be used to treat a wide variety of health conditions. These are my favorite uses for cupping, but the possibilities do not end here!

  • Cupping is an excellent deep-tissue therapy, and awesome for muscle tension and pain anywhere in the body. Cupping works wonders for tight necks and shoulders (and “tech neck”!), tense low back muscles, hip pain, sciatica, various joint problems, or tight IT bands (cyclists and runners, I’m looking at you!). I have also seen good results with combinations of cupping, acupuncture, and topical herbs for stubborn plantar fasciitis and achilles pain. Cupping is awesome for athletes! Cupping on the forearms and inner wrists can be helpful for carpal tunnel-type symptoms and other types of overuse injuries.

  • Cupping can help manage asthma and other lung conditions, and improve breathing and break up stubborn phlegm in the lungs from the common cold or other conditions.

  • Cupping on the low back can help prevent and alleviate menstrual cramping.

  • Headaches of various types can be alleviated through cupping.

  • Digestive pain, bloating, and irregularity can be assisted with cupping on the abdomen, and along the spine where the digestive organs innervate with the spinal cord.

  • Cupping has a sedating, soothing effect on the nervous system. This means that it can help reduce stress and anxiety, has also been shown to lower blood pressure.

  • Feel a cold coming on? Cupping can help prevent the onset of colds, and can help quicken recovery from colds that have already set in. Using cupping and herbal medicine at the first hint of a sore, scratchy throat, body aches and chills is a great first line of defense. We often use this exact treatment on ourselves here at the clinic with great success whenever we feel a cold coming on!

What’s the deal with the red marks from cupping? Do they hurt?

The suction effect on the skin brings blood, lymph, cellular debris, pathogenic factors, and toxins toward the surface. These processes can result in redness (what we call “sha“) and  petichiae (tiny red spots caused by the breaking of micro capillaries).

These marks are part of the process, and do not mean that cupping has caused damage or injury to the body. Rather, it shows that blood flow was increased to the area. Often times, the darker the redness that results from a treatment, the more stagnant the qi and blood in that area — in short, the more you need it!

For most people, redness should fade within 2-5 days. The process of cupping, and the resulting marks, should never be painful.

As you continue to receive regular cupping session after session, the marks will become gradually lighter after each treatment. This indicates that the health of your tissues and the flow of your body's qi and blood are improving! 

How will I feel after a treatment, and what should I do to take care of myself after?

You may notice that the area of treatment feels more open, easier to move, and that you may have less pain and tension. You may also feel like the area is warmer, due to increased blood circulation. You may feel relaxed and refreshed, with clearer thinking.

To take care of yourself after cupping, keep the treatment area warm and away from wind and drafts, drink plenty of water, and avoid taking a shower, bath, or swimming for a few hours. While these may seem like funny pieces of advice, it all makes sense from a Chinese medicine perspective — the treatment opened up your pores and channels, and we want to make sure that no pathogenic factors find their way in!

How often do I need cupping?

That depends entirely on your body and your situation. Acute or short-term symptoms tend to resolve more quickly than long-term symptoms. I have some patients who come every week for cupping treatments, while some patients only get it once a month. Because it has a cumulative effect, for chronic issues I recommend coming weekly for 4-6 treatments to get the best results, then re-evaluating.

What are the contraindications (reasons not to get cupped)?

  • If you are very weak, are dealing with a prolonged disease, or have low blood pressure, you may be able to receive cupping, but it will be gentle treatment and you should give yourself plenty of time to rest afterward

  • If you have a bleeding disorder or taking blood thinners, cupping treatments may not be appropriate or should be done with extreme caution

  • Pregnant people should not receive cupping on the low back, sacrum, or abdomen

  • Cupping should not be performed on areas of severely dry/flaky, infected, broken, sunburned, burned, or inflamed skin

  • Cupping should not be performed on areas of edema, ascites, or swelling

  • Cupping should not be performed over broken bones, herniated discs, dislocations

  • People should not receive cupping if experiencing severe health conditions such as cardiac failure, renal failure, liver failure

How do I schedule?

You want to experience it now, don’t you? 

At the clinic, we provide cupping in several types of appointments.

  • Cupping & Tuina Massage appointments: 60-min or 30-min treatments, includes more one-on-one time for discussion, coaching, treatment personalization and hands-on bodywork.

  • Intial or Follow-Up Acupuncture Appointment: these 90- or 60-min treatments often combine acupuncture with cupping therapy and other modalities as appropriate for the patient.

You can book appointments online HERE.

Want to chat before booking?

Not sure which option is best for you? Have other questions? We can help! Shoot us a message from our contact page. We can discuss your questions, concerns, and goals, as well as our approach and the services we offer, to see if working together would be a good fit. We look forward to getting to know you!

*The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

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