Why Cupping Is Not For Me.

Tara Buckel
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Therapy
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Feb 8, 2019

There are a huge range of therapies out there.  Some are consistently popular, others are trends that come and go for various reasons.  I briefly looked into Cupping and Gua Sha (skin scraping) therapies out of curiosity a couple of years ago when they were getting a lot of media attention.  Googling ‘Cupping marks’ or ‘Gua Sha marks’ and viewing the photos was actually enough to decide it wasn't for me, as a therapist or a client, but I did continue to research it. Cupping is traditionally a heated glass cup placed against the skin creating a partial vacuum in the cup to suck blood to the skin surface causing a bruise.  You might be told it's a misconception that it's a bruise, that it's the detoxification process.  But think about the process of drawing skin up into a vacuum.  It's undeniably a bruise. In the East they believe these ‘marks’ are a sign of healing and detoxification.  In the West we see bruising as no more than a sign of tissue trauma.

Plenty of varying advice out there from Cupping therapists, for example, it doesn't hurt.  As a therapist,  I am careful not presume anything about my clients pain threshold or tell them how they are going to feel. Some cupping therapists warn if you have an immune condition, then you should inform them before seeking treatment. People with blood clotting disorders should avoid treatment (due to the dangers of bruising)  I have also read you should consult your GP first if you have chronic or long term conditions.

Cupping is an ancient technique used in Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM) which has been around for centuries.  Back in the day, the purpose was to purge ‘chi’ (the energy in the blood) Today it is used to remove unnamed toxins, increase blood flow or activate the immune system.  It's worth bearing in mind drinking enough water is a tried and tested effective way of encouraging the removal of toxins from the muscles to the lymph nodes and that massage is amazing for our circulation & immune systems, no tissue damage required.

Gua Sha is the use of a shaped tool to scrape the skin.  The tools come in all sorts of shapes and materials, jade for example, but metal can be used, which is why it's also referred to as 'spooning’ or ‘coining’. There is a particularly nasty photo on Google which looks like road rash effect around a clients spine and shoulder blades.  The smooth flat edge can be used comfortably, rather like a hot stone massage (or cold, in this case) and I've used it on myself in this way on my face.  But the edge is used to bruise and graze the skin. I researched its uses and benefits.  As well as muscle pain, it is apparently beneficial for menopausal symptoms, although there was no explanation as to how scraping the skin can relieve hormonal changes and imbalances. I presume it’s the detox process again.  

Cupping gained popularity a few years ago when Gwyneth Paltrow was seen wearing a backless dress accessorised with those distinctive blister like bruises. Big name Olympic swimmers such as Michael Phelps are also huge advocates.  For those in competitive sports it is used as an alternative to the minefield of medication and drugs testing and distracting them from the effects of the high level endurance they put their bodies through.

I've seen it described by a cupping therapist as a ‘deep tissue massage in reverse’ but if deep tissue massage creates that level of haematoma internally, then you need to seriously consider changing your massage therapist.  

Cups|Aveoree|Flickr|CC

There are many research papers out there on the subject but the high quality research studies tend to be negative or inconclusive about the results of cupping.  I trained 2 years ago in the psychology of touch (which of course involved learning about the psychology of pain)  I discovered on that course  the scientific research evidence concludes that the most effective touch for relieving pain (physical and emotional) is a very light slow rhythmical touch.  The kind of touch we instinctively use to soothe a crying baby.  No matter our age, that kind of touch has all kinds of profound effects on our physiology and has been well documented with scientific studies. But still, unfortunately, there is a culture of belief in ‘no pain, no gain’  

As a massage therapist, I understand the mechanism of causing trauma to an area to temporarily speed up healing by encouraging the body's natural process. It is the appeal of wanting to receive this which concerns and confuses me.  The idea of bruising as a form of fixing or healing is still basically causing stress to an already traumatised system is quite disturbing. Our modern culture is unfortunately often uncomfortable with and avoids the notion of self care.   It saddens me that a therapist would scrape or cup the skin to cause our tissues damage via bruising or grazing as a way to ‘fix’ a condition.  

The link between pleasure and pain is well documented, it starts in our central nervous system which releases endorphins, the hormones which act to block pain and work in the same way as opiates such as morphine to induce feelings of euphoria and temporary relief.  So. Consider the results of cupping and Gua Sha as the powerful effect of ‘counter irritation’.  For example, if you hit your thumb with a hammer, that will distract you from the headache that you already had.  This effect is well documented and not to be mocked or overlooked, as is the placebo effect (believing in something so much, it works)

I talk often about my preference for treatments that encourage my clients to take ownership of their wellness, to feel utterly comfortable in their own skin and to embrace self care and acceptance from their sessions has far reaching effects. I would feel uncomfortable seeing my clients leave my clinic with bruises or tissue damage of any kind.  Living with pain is not easy.  In reality, there are no quick fix solutions.  We all know medication at best is a compromise.  It’s frustrating when you work hard at taking good care of yourself, but still have to deal with the effects of having a bad day and relapsing.  Believe me, I struggle with this too.  I invest time and effort daily into keeping myself well to lower the effects of pain. Our diet, the amount of sleep and R&R we get, the amount of work and exercise we do and our attitude will determine how we feel.  I try out and test new things all the time.  So much so, I am currently drinking 16oz of (not exactly tasty) celery juice every morning to try and curb the effects of inflammation in my body.  I have been told I am deluded by some of my friends, but hey, it’s not causing my body to fire up a stress & trauma response mechanism.  At worst, it is causing me no harm whatsoever.  Often, in the west, we fixate on fixing a condition without considering the cause behind it.  But why spend time & effort on therapies, especially if these therapies are carrying out a 'detox process’ if we don't pursue the reason behind why this issue/condition/illness or dis-ease is happening?

I believe we all have to do our own research and go with our gut feeling regarding therapy and wellness.  We need to do what feels right for ourselves.  We are all different, but, make no mistake, the fact remains, no matter our age or gender, everyone of us thrives when given comfort and kindness.

I also believe we are living in an age of craving visibility.  There appears to be something very satisfying in walking away from an experience with something to show for it.  It's the reason why social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are so successful.  Massage is unashamedly all about how you feel.  Feelings are not easy to portray on Instagram, but for me, feeling blissfully comfortable in my own skin is more than good enough.  



Tara Buckel

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