Is cupping worth the hype?

Cupping has gained a lot of popularlity in recent years because of frequent cuppers like Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lena Dunham, and Jennifer Aniston. Cupping isn’t a new craze–it’s been recorded as a Chinese therapy from 200 AD.

So is it worth it? I’ll talk about my experience receiving cupping therapy today in China.


First, to give you a little background about this crazy thing: cupping–or ba huo guan (拔火罐)–is an ancient Chinese treatment, where glass cups are heated using fire, then placed on the skin. The heat differential creates pressure inside the cup, which pulls the skin up inside the cup. The skin becomes very red–almost bruised looking–inside of the cup, as the blood is pulled to the surface.

The pressure removes the extra moisture–shi qi (湿气)–out of your body by suctioning the excess moisture to the the surface of the skin and inside of the cup. Ever had your feet get sweaty during a foot massage? That’s shi qi. The Chinese believe that shi qi 湿气 becomes trapped inside of your body when one goes from inside the house, where it is heated or air conditioned, to outside. The sudden difference in temperatures and humidity is thought to be harmful to the body.

The Chinese use cupping mostly to increase blood flow for healing or cosmetic (think: cellulite) purposes, where blood otherwise might not flow very actively. It’s great for muscle soreness, as well as headaches and other minor health issues. It is an alternative therapy, so we can’t say for sure what it does, besides bring blood to the surface of the skin.


My friend 林伟灏 “getting cupped”

My experience with Cupping in China 

It may look painful, because, well.. it kinda is.

The first time I was “cupped” was not by my own choice. A friend in China took me to the spa, to help me negotiate the price on a massage. Little did I know I was also signed up for a facial and cupping.

I was experiencing some lightheadedness, tension headaches, and lacked general mental clarity, so my massage therapist suggested I try cupping therapy today.  It had been 4 months since I tried it last (it is recommended that you wait 3 months between sessions), so I said, why not?

It started with a 30 minute oil massage, to loosen the muscles, and find out where I was having soreness or decreased blood flow. Then, she started by wiping the inside of a cup with alcohol, lighting a paper stick and lighting each cup on fire one at a time, before placing them on my back.


Immediately, the pressure began. There was a stinging, aching pressure where the cup was placed, and it wasn’t really going away over time. There goes the next cup and the next. I looked up at her to tell her I was experiencing some pain, but the sudden movement and tugging at my skin just made the pain worse. 10 cups later I was screaming in Chinese.

She didn’t stop.

She placed the last two–most painful, I should say–cups right on the back of my shoulder blades, near the top of my arms. She said I was having trouble getting blood flow here the most, and it was causing my neck pain. Once she placed all the cups, she started massaging my legs to take my mind off the pain. I was feeling a little dizzy, like the blood was leaving my brain.

5 minutes later, she pulled each cup off one by one. This hurt the most. The cups that “sucked” the most water had the sharpest pain as she pulled them off. As she pulled them off, she wiped the inside of the cups and the skin, both of which had collected moisture. Each spot was a perfectly red, swollen circle, about 6 inches wide.

After the treatment, I was instructed not to shower for 24 hours, or the moisture would go back into the skin. She told me to drink hot water or tea, and wear clothes that covered my skin to sleep tonight. She told me that the red circles on my skin won’t go away for at least 2 weeks, but that I shouldn’t touch, massage or itch them for at least a day.


The Aftermath

Immediate: Once I left the spa, I felt like I could smell a bit more, see brighter colors; I was noticing things I hadn’t seen before. The cupping did a great job in clearing my head, at least. My tension headache was gone. I feel lighter. I’m also really, really sore. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow, but for my second trip, I’m giving cupping the following grades (which honeslty don’t add up to anything, but give you a gauge):

Effectiveness: 7/10

Pain: 6/10

Overall Grade: A-

Update from the next morning: I feel great! No tension headache today, great mood, an indescribable lightness. You might not believe me when I say this, but I wish I didn’t have to wait 3 months between each treatment! I get regular massages, but it’s nothing compared to the feeling after cupping.

Final takeaway

Cupping is definitely worth a try. If it works for you as well as it did for me, you’ll agree: it’s worth the pain. Just one more note: the pain is directly, linearly related to the SIZE of the cup used (at least in my experience), so if you’re intolerant to pain, ask for smaller cups your first time!

Have you tried cupping? Weigh in with your experience or thoughts below!

Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez is a board-certified general practitioner with more than 15 years of patient care experience. She takes an integrative approach to patient care that considers the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – and is deeply committed to assisting her patients in achieving and sustaining optimal health. Dr. Vanessa is also a skilled writer and medical reviewer, specializing in preventive care and health promotion. Her articles are written in an approachable manner that is simple to comprehend and implement in one’s own life. Dr. Vanessa’s mission is to equip her patients and readers with the knowledge and resources necessary to live their greatest lives.

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