Cupping as a Chinese healing therapy has been getting more attention in the past several years, thanks to Hollywood-types in low cut gowns and Olympic athletes who are willing to share their cupping marks with the world. When you think about Chinese medicine, you might first think about acupuncture and Chinese herbs. However, cupping is a lesser-known method of healing used by practitioners of Chinese medicine to treat a number of conditions.

So what exactly is cupping, and why do it? Cupping is a method of healing that involves placing large glass or plastic cups on your skin in which a vacuum has been created. Cupping isn’t painful, but you will feel a pulling sensation as the cups do their job. The cups are usually left on for ten to twenty minutes, and it’s important to know that they leave a mark which lasts for about a week.

Hundreds of years ago, the cups were made from animal horn or bamboo. Today, most cups are made of glass or plastic. A vacuum is created (in glass cups only) by lighting an alcohol-soaked cotton ball and placing it in the cup. When the flame has used up all the air in the cup, the cup is quickly placed on your skin. This is called fire cupping, but no fire or heat actually touches your skin. In plastic cups, a vacuum is created through the use of a pump which pulls the air out through a gasket at the top of the cup.

Cupping is a little bit like a reverse massage, in which your skin, muscles, and fascia are being therapeutically pulled, whereas in a massage, they are being manipulated through pushing. Cupping increases circulation to the area, bringing in new blood and nutrients which support the healing process. It also opens up your pores, which helps to release toxins. In addition, the cupping marks are actually a good thing. They’re from small capillaries that are broken during the process, which creates areas of microtrauma—tiny injuries that stimulate your body to heal. Sometimes when you’re injured, your body gets into a cycle where it doesn’t heal. Microtraumas, like acupuncture or cupping, shift your body out of its current state and send a message to begin healing.

What Does Cupping Treat?

Cupping can be used as a treatment for a variety of health conditions. It’s commonly used for pain, but can also be effective for asthma and other respiratory conditions, to promote general health, and speed up recovery from an injury. Cupping is frequently done on your back; as a way to loosen up tight muscles in your upper back and shoulders, or along your spine to stimulate your spinal nerves and increase circulation. It can also be done on your upper chest to affect your lungs, as well as your arms or legs.

Cupping therapy is safe, but there are a couple of precautions. It shouldn’t be done over any open wounds, rashes, or skin lesions. Cupping should be avoided over areas of swelling or edema, varicose veins, or large blood vessels. Pregnant women shouldn’t be cupped, and easy bleeders, anyone taking a blood thinning medication, or patients with bleeding disorders should not be cupped.

The bottom line is that while cupping is best known for the treatment of pain and tight muscles, it can be an effective treatment for a variety of conditions. In addition, most patients like being cupped; they say it leaves them feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.