Can you do cupping therapy on yourself

Deborah C. Escalante

There is some evidence to suggest that cupping therapy may be beneficial for certain health conditions. However, research into cupping therapy tends to be of low quality. More studies are necessary to understand how cupping therapy works, if it works, and situations where it may help.

Cupping therapy is a traditional Chinese and Middle Eastern practice used to treat a variety of conditions.

It involves placing cups at certain points on a person’s skin. A practitioner creates suction in the cups, which pulls against the skin.

Cupping can either be dry or wet. Wet cupping involves puncturing the skin before starting the suction, which removes some of the person’s blood during the procedure. This type of cupping is less common in the United States, where practitioners must be licensed medical professionals.

Cupping typically leaves round bruises on a person’s skin, where blood vessels burst after exposure to the procedure’s suction effects.

Benefits

A 2018 review offered a summary of the uses of cupping. The review was limited to uses documented in research studies.

According to this paper, the different types of stimulation cupping can provide may be why it helps a wide range of conditions.

However, the review also notes there is not enough strong evidence to back up this effectiveness.

Benefits of cupping that the review authors cite may include:

  • pain reduction
  • muscle relaxation
  • improved blood circulation
  • activation of the immune system
  • release of toxins
  • removal of wastes and heavy metals

Does cupping therapy work?

Scientists have linked cupping therapy with various health benefits. According to a 2017 analysis, the suction involved in cupping stimulates local blood flow. This action also stimulates the body’s heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) system, which has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neurotransmitter regulation effects.

Cupping also has links to acupuncture points on a person’s body, which are central to the practice of acupuncture.

Many doctors consider cupping therapy a complementary therapy, which means that many do not recognize it as part of Western medicine. However, this does not mean it is not effective. Therapists sometimes use complementary treatments with supporting research in addition to Western medicine.

However, as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) also notes, there is not yet enough high-quality research to prove cupping’s effectiveness. Scientists have to do more research to determine whether it works as a treatment.

Uses

According to the 2018 review, therapists may use cupping for the following conditions:

  • shingles pain
  • facial paralysis
  • spinal disk wear and tear (cervical spondylosis)
  • high blood pressure
  • cardiovascular disease prevention
  • musculoskeletal pain
  • lower back pain
  • neck pain
  • fibromyalgia
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • headache
  • migraine
  • cellulitis
  • cough
  • cold
  • asthma
  • acne
  • urticaria
  • soft tissue injury
  • arthritis
  • neurodermatitis

Therapists may also use cupping as a cosmetic technique to improve the appearance of facial skin.

To achieve the benefits of cupping, practitioners apply the cups to different parts of the body. This may or may not be at the site of pain. According to a 2015 paper, application sites can include:

  • back
  • neck
  • between the shoulders
  • behind the ear
  • middle and crown of the head
  • chin
  • thighs
  • knee joints
  • ankle joints
  • breast
  • hips
  • buttocks
  • wrist joints

The research notes that the most common application sites are the back, chest, abdomen, buttocks, and areas of the body with significant muscle.

Pain relief

People frequently cite cupping therapy as a method of pain relief. However, while there is some evidence for its effectiveness, scientists need to conduct more high-quality studies to demonstrate this fully.

A meta-analysis that appears in a 2018 review claims there may be evidence for cupping being effective in treating back pain. However, again, the researchers note that most studies were of low quality and that there is a need for more standardization in future studies.

One 2018 study came to a similar conclusion for the effectiveness of cupping for neck pain. The researchers note that there is a need for better-quality studies to determine whether cupping therapy is effective.

Skin conditions

The 2018 review cited research evidence for cupping therapy to be effective at treating acne as well as herpes zoster (shingles) and its associated pain.

However, more rigorous, high-quality studies are necessary to verify the findings.

Sports recovery

Another 2017 review notes that professional athletes are increasingly using cupping therapy as part of their recovery practices.

However, this review found no consistent evidence to show that cupping was effective for anything related to sports recovery. The researchers gave no recommendation for or against the practice, saying further research was necessary.

Side effects and risks

According to the NCCIH, the side effects of cupping can include:

  • lasting skin discoloration
  • scarring
  • burns
  • infection

If a person has a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis, cupping may make it worse on the area where the practitioner applies the cups.

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According to a 2018 overview on cupping, the therapy can also cause:

  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • nausea
  • insomnia

Due to the poor quality of studies investigating cupping, it is difficult to know how common these side effects are.

If a person has any of these side effects following cupping therapy, they should speak with a medical professional. Some people may have health conditions, such as problems with blood clotting, that make cupping unsuitable.

Wet cupping risks

In cases where a person undergoes wet cupping, which is more common outside the U.S., a person could experience internal bleeding or anemia if the practitioner takes too much blood or if a person has frequent wet cupping sessions.

Wet cupping also risks serious infections if practitioners fail to sterilize equipment between sessions.

How to do it at home

There are many commercially available kits to help a person practice cupping at home. However, not everything on the market is necessarily safe or recommended for every person. Before a person begins cupping at home, they may want to talk with their doctor.

It is also possible to take courses on home cupping from licensed providers, such as acupuncturists. Before signing up, a person might want to review the instructor’s credentials or get referrals from healthcare professionals, friends, or family.

The NCCIH has tips for selecting a complementary health practitioner. They include researching the practitioner’s training and certifications and asking if they work with conventional healthcare professionals.

FAQs

Is it safe?

Aside from the side effects and risks, cupping is generally safe. The NCCIH notes there have been reports of severe side effects, such as bleeding inside the skull after scalp cupping and anemia from repeated wet cupping, but these are rare. In the U.S., only licensed medical professionals can perform wet cupping, and the procedure is not very common.

However, wet cupping does increase the risk of infections and bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis B and C if the practitioner does not sterilize the cups between sessions. Before undergoing a wet cupping session, a person should ask about safety and sterilization practices.

Is it painful?

Side effects of dry cupping might include physical discomforts such as headaches and nausea. According to the 2018 overview, people may also experience pain at the application site.

Wet cupping involves shallow cuts in the skin, followed by suction to draw blood. This, like the suction in dry cupping, may cause soreness in the area. However, as stated, this type of cupping is not common in the U.S.

How long does it take to work?

The time it takes to experience the benefits of cupping therapy is unknown and may depend on the specific condition. For example, the 2018 review suggested a possible protocol for lower back pain of five sessions of dry cupping with a break of 3–7 days between sessions.

It may therefore take multiple cupping sessions to find relief. Also, since the technique causes skin discoloration, it may be a few days before the skin looks as it did before the therapy.

Takeaway

There is some evidence to suggest that cupping therapy may help a person with certain health issues. However, there are not enough high-quality studies to support this.

To understand whether cupping therapy is effective, how it works, and the conditions it is best for, scientists need to conduct and publish more high-quality research.

If a person finds that cupping therapy relieves their pain or helps their health in another way, and if they do not experience any adverse side effects, cupping may be a good choice. However, some therapies have better evidence for their effectiveness. Doctors may advise that people consider these first.

A person may choose to use cupping therapy alongside conventional therapies. If they decide to do so, it is important they let their conventional healthcare team know.

Many might think of cupping massage as a luxurious treatment only available through a professional. While this is still the case with traditional cupping that utilizes glass cups and fire, a new and innovative approach (with the same benefits we might add) using medical-grade silicone cups is now available! 

With this in mind, we’re here to introduce you to some at-home cupping kits, which allow everyone to enjoy the incredible wellness benefits of massage cupping along with clean, naturally-formulated and powerful aromatherapy oils.

For those who may not be familiar with cupping therapy, below are a few science-backed benefits that you can now experience in the comfort of your own home!

Pain Management Benefits

Scientists reviewed over one hundred studies on cupping therapy and found evidence that this process helped to alleviate:

  • Chronic pain and inflammation, especially of the neck and back

  • Nerve pain, especially due to shingles

  • Pain associated with facial paralysis

  • Muscle stiffness

  • Stagnation

Beauty Benefits

Evidence suggests that cupping promotes healing primarily by increasing circulation to localized areas. Some key beauty benefits associated with cupping include:

  • Minimizing the appearance of varicose veins

  • Improving the look of skin tone & elasticity

  • Combating inflamed, acneic skin

  • Reducing the Appearance of scars

  • Targeting Fine Lines & Wrinkles

  • Creating a Youthful Glow

The cupping kits we’re featuring today come from Bellabaci, the innovators of the flexible silicone massage cup. These kits make it simple to focus on the concerns you’d like to address at home and provide you with everything you need to do so. There are 6 kits for the body, and 3 kits for the face. We’ll be giving you a mini protocol that can be applied to any kit and practical steps to help you learn how to use the cups at-home. Each featured kit includes: two cups (a soft cup and a hard cup), one wellness oil, and one mitt.

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    Pro Tips for Starting Out

    1. Get familiar with your cups!

    Take some time to squeeze your cups and identify which is the soft cup. You’ll use the soft cup starting out, as it’s a little easier to squeeze and will allow you to safely work up to deeper pressure. Once you’ve identified the soft cup, play with the levels of pressure you can achieve from squeezing it. A light squeeze won’t lift the tissue much at all, but a full squeeze will reach deeper and create a bubble of tissue that you can see inside the cup when you place it on your skin.

    Be generous with the oil. The wellness oil is formulated to be mess-free so it won’t drip or stain, so don’t be afraid to use plenty. Not only will the essential oils aid in addressing your wellness concern, but it helps provide the necessary suction and glide for the cups when you place them on your skin.

    2. Practice guiding the cups.

    Once you’ve placed the cup on your area of concern and can see the tissue is lifted up inside the cup, cease squeezing. Use your hand or fingers to simply guide the cup in the direction you want it to go, without applying pressure or squeezing. Keep a close eye on the tissue inside the cup. If it starts to get too red or dark or feels uncomfortable, you may have created too much suction. Remove the cup, and don’t squeeze as firmly before placing it again. To remove the cup, squeeze to release the suction, and lift away.

    3. Gaining a general sense of direction.

    When massage cupping at home, there are certain limitations you’ll have in movement unless you have a partner helping you. It’s important for you and/or your partner to understand the proper direction of strokes so that you are aiding in detox, and not hindering it.  For home massage purposes, always stroke moving toward the heart. I.E. from feet to calf, from thigh to hip, from bottom to top of the stomach, etc. On the arms and back, stroke moving toward the armpits, or axilla.

    There are many lymph nodes located throughout the body, but the main hubs you’ll want to try to remember are in the head and neck, the axilla, the crook of your elbows, the groin, and behind the knees. Be sure to complete strokes in between these hubs, moving excess fluid and toxins toward the lymph nodes to be flushed out naturally by the body. 

    Please note, unless you are a licensed therapist,  it is not recommended to use cups on the neck. There are some motions you can use on the back of the neck, closer to the trapezius muscles, but it is not considered safe to move the cups over the prominent veins and lymph nodes located in the neck unless you are a trained professional. 

    4. Use the mitt before or after your massage cupping treatment to maximize results.

    Your kit includes a specialized mitt to aid in exfoliation, increase circulation, and/or to help remove any excess wellness oil from your skin after using the cups. They can also be used alone as separate treatments. 

    Three Basic Movements You Need to Know

    The Fish Bite

    Squeeze the cup, place it at the starting point on your area of concern, and move it up toward the designated lymph node hub, squeezing and releasing the cup as you go. Count in your head “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2…” squeezing on “1” and releasing on “2.” You will see the tissue inside the cup get sucked in and then fall, every time you squeeze and release. The sensation may remind you of a little fish nibble! 

    Effleurage

    Squeeze the cup, place it at the starting point on your area of concern, and move it up toward the designated lymph node hub in one fluid motion, without continuing to squeeze. Once you’ve completed the motion, pick up the cup and place it at the starting point again, and repeat. 

    Circles

    This one is pretty self-explanatory. Squeeze the cup, place it at the starting point on your area of concern, and move it up toward the designated lymph node hub in little circles, without continuing to squeeze. Take care not to perform circles going back down toward the starting point. To repeat circles, pick the cup back up and replace it at the starting point and work your way back up to the lymph node hub again. You can alternate between big circles and little circles. 

     

    Facial Protocol 

    Step 1: Cleanse the skin using the Deep Cleanse Pro Mitt or your favorite cleanser, taking care to remove all makeup. Do not use a cleanser with your mitt, only water.

    Step 2: Apply the Skin Get a Life, Circuflow, or Stress No More Genie to the full face using your fingers, about 1.5 pumps. Wipe off excess oil from your hands on a towel or onto your mitt.

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    Step 3: Perform the Facial Cupping Massage starting with horizontal effleurage strokes on the right side of the face, moving from the midline of the face toward your right ear. Do this twice and then repeat on the left side of your face.

    Step 4: Next, do little Circles on the right side of the face moving from the midline toward the ear. Focus on massaging the areas of sagging and wrinkles such as the forehead, around the eyes, nasolabial folds, and jawline. Perform Circles twice, followed by Fish Bites, once. Repeat on the left side of the face.

    Step 5: Finally, repeat the horizontal effleurage motions twice on each side of the face. Cleanse with the mitt to remove excess oil. 

    Cellulite Be Gone Upper Leg Protocol

    Step 1: For best results, apply the Cellulite Be Gone Genie to the left buttock and thigh, about 3-4 pumps.

    Step 2: Using the soft cup on a light suction, start above the knee on the side of the thigh, and glide the cup in one long motion up to the buttock. Pick up the cup and place it again above the knee on a light suction, and repeat the same motion up toward the buttock and groin, moving all around the circumference of the leg. Do this for 4 minutes.

    Note: If experiencing any discomfort from cellulite tissue on the sensitive area inside the thigh, hold the skin taut to help reduce suction even further. If discomfort continues, cease working on this area until you can use a lighter suction cup, like the Super Cup.

    Step 3: Next, use Circular motions starting above the knee and moving toward the buttock and groin. Do this for 3 minutes. Then, do Fish Bites for 2 minutes.

    Step 4: Finally, finish with effleurage for 2 minutes and repeat the whole sequence on the right leg. You may continue this treatment by exfoliating using your Kese mitt with soap and water in the shower. This will further stimulate circulation and reduce the appearance of cellulite. 

    Wrist Strain Relief Protocol

    Step 1: For best results, apply a pump of either Hello Body Mechanic or Circuflow to the palm of your working hand, and massage it into the opposite hand, wrist, and lower arm. Wipe off any excess oil from your working hand before grabbing your soft body cup.

    Step 2: Start with effleurage glides moving from the wrist to the elbow. Do this along the sides and top of the lower arm for 30 seconds.

    Step 3: Next, perform Circles moving from the wrist to the elbow. Do this along the sides and top of the lower arm for 30 seconds to 1 minute, as needed.

    Step 4: Next, turn your hand overexposing your palm. Place the cup on the heel of your hand near the base of the thumb. Ensure you have fairly deep suction on this area. Once you are satisfied with your placement and suction, rock the cup from side to side, like you’re turning a doorknob, and move it along the heel of your hand from left to right. Do this for at least a minute.

    Step 5: Finally, repeat the effleurage strokes moving from wrist to elbow along the sides and top of the lower arm for 30 seconds. Repeat the entire sequence on the other wrist. 

    Stress No More Headache Protocol

    Step 1: Sit comfortably in a chair or cushion that allows you to reach the back of your neck and shoulders.

    Step 2: For best results, apply 2-3 pumps of Circuflow onto the back of the neck and the tops of the shoulders.

    Step 3: Using little Circles, massage the back of the neck with the soft cup for about a minute.

    Step 4: Use effleurage strokes from the top of the shoulders up to the nape of your neck, being careful not to reach the sides of your neck where there are susceptible veins and arteries. Repeat this motion for 2 minutes, alternating from your left to ride hand as is comfortable to you.

    Step 5: Apply a half pump of Circuflow to the forehead and temples. Using the soft facial cup if you have it, effleurage horizontally across the forehead, moving from the midline outward to the temples. Do this for 30 seconds on each side.

    Step 6: Next, perform little Circles on the forehead, concentrating on the temples or above the eyebrows, depending on where the pressure feels most severe. Do this for 1 minute, at least.

    Step 7: Finally, perform horizontal effleurage again from the midline out to the temples, 30 seconds on each side.

    Bye Bye Belly Blues Protocol

    Step 1: Apply the Bye Bye Belly Blues Genie to the stomach and lower back liberally. The lotion provides the “slip” for a smooth and easy glide with the cups.

    Step 2: Squeeze the cup and set it down just above the ( R ) Hip

    Step 3: Glide upwards to the ( R ) rib cage and follow on across to just under the (L) ribcage. Move down to the (L) hip.

    Step 4: Congratulations, you have just completed your first abdominal massage circle! Repeat for 2 minutes. This can be done every day or as needed.

     

    And now that you’ve mastered the basics, you’re ready to give these protocols a try! Tag us in your social posts and use the hashtag #SpaAtHome so we can see you benefiting from these amazing cupping kits! Enjoy! 

    Kristen Tallman, Licensed Esthetician, Certified Health Coach, Training Manager

    Kristen is a graduate of the AVEDA Aesthetics Program, which focuses on skincare as an aspect of overall wellness and creating that holistic experience for clients with every service. She is passionate about the spa industry and the benefit its professionals offer to society. She worked as an Esthetician for 2 years before beginning her career as a Training Manager at Universal Companies in 2018. She is a certified Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and an English graduate from Belmont University. .

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