If you have seen the film ‘The Madness of King George’, about the illness of the English monarch George III, you will have seen cupping being used in a rather painful way on the unfortunate king. I wonder if this is historically inaccurate, or a bit of dramatic licence, or perhaps plain ignorance on the part of the film makers. In the film the cups are heated and then pushed down on to George’s back so as to burn him, like branding cattle! A flame is used in cupping, but not to make the cup hot; rather to reduce the pressure inside the cup so that when it is applied to the skin it pulls the skin and muscle upwards. The cup itself is not heated (and in our lovely climate, in fact, it pays to make sure the actual cup is not too cold, which is unpleasant for the patient); the marks left by cupping are caused by the invigoration of the blood flow in the local area, not by heat. These marks look a bit like circular bruises, but are not at all uncomfortable, and the patient will be quite unaware of them if he or she can’t see them.
Cupping, therefore, is not at all painful, at least if carried out by someone properly qualified to do it. I use it quite a bit alongside acupuncture when treating painful joints; even when the area is painful when pressure is applied, cupping, which is the opposite of pressure, is not painful. Sometimes I’ve been surprised at how comfortable a therapy cupping is even when other modalities such as massage or even acupuncture are unpleasant for the patient.
Cupping works because the suction expands tissue and causes the local blood vessels to dilate, thus increasing blood flow to the area in question. This is one of the reasons why it is often a useful therapy for many painful conditions – increased blood flow means the body’s own healing response, which is mediated by the blood, is more effective. This invigoration of the local circulation under the cup also helps drain the area of stagnant blood and toxins. Of course there is also the benefit of stretching and releasing muscle and other soft tissue.
Cupping is also a highly effective therapy for some respiratory problems, when the cups are applied to the upper back. For instance, I often use it to treat the common cold, and it is good for anyone with an accumulation of phlegm in the lungs.