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Does Cupping Hurt?

A woman getting cupping therapy.
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Cupping therapy, or “hijama,” is an ancient practice rooted in Chinese medicine and widely used in Eastern cultures for centuries. It has recently started to gain traction in Western medicine, too. Famous athletes, such as Michael Phelps, have thrust the therapeutic cupping method into the spotlight, making it a popular topic in wellness and sports recovery discussions. The treatment involves placing glass cups on the skin to create suction by vacuum, which can be applied in different ways to address various health concerns. If you’re new to this alternative medicine approach, you’re probably wondering: does cupping hurt?

In this blog post, we explore this question and provide insights into what you can expect from a cupping session. By the end, you’ll have a clearer understanding of sensations you might experience during or after one, helping you feel more comfortable and at ease if you decide to give it a try.

The Basics of Cupping Therapy: A Quick Run-Through

There are several types of cupping therapy, including:

  • Dry cupping: Uses mild suction to draw the skin into the cup without any incisions.
  • Wet cupping: Involves making small cuts on the skin before applying the cup to draw out a small amount of blood. 
  • Cupping massage: Also known as running cupping, the therapist moves the cups across the skin prepped with lotion or oil, similar to a deep tissue massage (without any incisions).

Thus, you could divide cupping techniques into stagnant/stationary and dynamic. Stagnant cupping/stationary cupping involves placing cups on specific areas of the skin and leaving them in place for a set period, typically 5 to 15 minutes. The dynamic cupping technique consists in moving the cups across the skin while maintaining gentle suction. Each technique serves different purposes and offers various healing cupping benefits. The strength of suction can also vary, ranging from gentle to robust or even pulsating suction.

How Cupping Works

By creating a vacuum effect, cupping can stretch connective tissues, break up scar tissue, and promote healing in the underlying blood vessels and tissues. Traditionally, it involved placing cups on the skin and creating a vacuum by igniting a flammable substance inside the cup and then placing it upside down on the body. Modern techniques, however, use a suction device to create a vacuum without fire.

During cupping, a practitioner places glass cups on specific points on a person’s skin to create suction. The suction process draws fluid into the treated area, expanding and breaking open tiny blood vessels. This stimulates blood flow, promotes healing, and triggers the body’s natural processes. Numerous theories have been proposed to elucidate the various effects of cupping therapy and how it operates.

Key benefits of cupping include pain reduction, muscle relaxation and reduced muscle knots, improved blood circulation, soft tissue repair, activation of the immune system, and removal of toxins and wastes from the body. Many scientific studies support these claims behind cupping.

For example, a recent 2023 clinical study revealed that both dry and wet cupping techniques are effective in pain management. Dry cupping turned out to be particularly useful for generalized pain, while wet cupping showed significant benefits for inflammatory pain conditions like herpes zoster infection. Both types have also been shown to be a useful treatment for sports rehabilitation.

The Million Dollar Question: Does Cupping Hurt?

Now we get to the part that likely concerns anyone thinking about trying this therapy – is cupping supposed to hurt? Generally, cupping physical therapy is not supposed to be painful. Most people describe the feeling as a firm pulling or stretching of the skin, which can be slightly uncomfortable but not necessarily painful.

However, the sensation of cupping can vary from person to person. The level of discomfort can depend on factors such as:

  • The intensity of the vacuum suction and methods of cupping
  • The area of the body being treated
  • Individual pain tolerance

How Painful Is Cupping?

A close-up shot of lower back cupping therapy.

For many, the sensation is similar to that of a deep tissue massage, where you might experience some discomfort, especially if there are significant muscle knots or tension in the area. However, this discomfort is often described as a “good hurt,” as it leads to relief and relaxation – something cupping aficionados know very well.

Does Cupping Hurt the Next Day?

It’s common to feel some soreness after a cupping session, similar to how you might feel after an intense workout or a deep massage. The suction can cause temporary bruising, redness, or tenderness in the treated areas due to skin tissue stimulation. 

However, the discomfort is usually mild and should subside within a day or two. If the soreness persists or is particularly intense, it’s always a good idea to consult with your cupping therapist.

Is It Normal to Feel Worse After Cupping?

As we explained, it’s not uncommon to experience mild discomfort or soreness right after cupping therapy. After it passes, you should feel better. However, if you feel significantly worse or experience severe pain, consult a healthcare professional immediately. They can assess your condition and provide appropriate guidance.

Potential Side Effects: Is Cupping Therapy Risky?

While cupping is generally considered safe when performed by a trained professional, there are some minor potential side effects, including:

  • Bruising: The suction creates circular bruises, which are a normal part of the process and indicate increased blood flow to the area.
  • Skin irritation: The cups can sometimes cause minor skin irritation or blisters.
  • Discomfort: Some people may experience minor discomfort during and after the session.

Potential risks of cupping, particularly associated with wet cupping since they involve small cuts, include infection and skin damage if not done properly. That’s why it is important to find an experienced and reputable expert for the treatment. 

Who Is Not Suitable for Cupping?

Cupping may not be suitable for everyone. People with the following conditions should avoid cupping or consult their doctor first:

  • Skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis (cupping might trigger flare-ups)
  • Blood disorders such as hemophilia and anemia, clotting problems, or those taking blood thinners (due to effects on circulation). 
  • Cardiovascular diseases or unstable blood pressure
  • Those who are pregnant

Aftercare Tips: Dos and Don’ts After Cupping

After a cupping session, it’s important to follow simple guidelines to maximize benefits and minimize any potential discomfort:

  • Do: Stay hydrated, rest, and keep the cupped areas clean and dry.
  • Don’t: Engage in intense physical activity, expose the cupped areas to extreme temperatures, or consume alcohol immediately after the session.

Plus, avoid consuming caffeine, alcohol, and sugary foods right after cupping, as these can interfere with the body’s healing process. Opt for nutritious, anti-inflammatory foods instead.

Reading the Signs: What Do Cupping Marks Tell You?

An image of a man after a cupping session explaining - does cupping hurt?  

Cupping marks, also known as “sha,” are typically circular or oval-shaped and may range in color from pink to dark purple, resulting from the suction created by the cups during treatment. According to traditional Chinese medicine, they can also provide insight into the areas of the body that may need more attention – they can indicate where blood flow was most stagnant and where the body is healing due to targeted blood flow.

TCM suggests the location of cupping marks can also give us a hint or two – marks near specific acupuncture points may reveal imbalances in corresponding organs or meridians. How long the marks last can also provide information; longer-lasting marks may indicate chronic issues. However, there are currently no studies exploring these claims.

The darkness of cupping marks can vary, and according to TCM, their color and intensity speak volumes. Darker marks often indicate more stagnation or blockage in the area, suggesting that the treatment is addressing underlying issues. 

Light red indicates mild stagnation or congestion, dark red or purple suggests deeper stagnation or more significant issues, while black or brown marks indicate long-standing stagnation or chronic conditions.

Are Cupping Marks Sore to Touch?

Cupping marks can be a bit sore to the touch, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a cupping session. The intensity of soreness can vary depending on factors such as individual pain tolerance, the duration and intensity of the cupping session, and the sensitivity of the skin in the treated areas.

While some people may only experience mild discomfort, others may find the marks tender to the touch for several days following the session. However, the soreness usually subsides gradually as the marks fade, and many individuals report feeling significant relief and relaxation from the therapy despite the temporary discomfort.

Cupping Doesn’t Hurt, It Heals: Feel the Difference

So, does cupping hurt? The answer is generally no, though some discomfort can be expected during and after the session, with sweet relief ahead. The sensation is often comparable to a deep-tissue massage and can lead to muscle relaxation, pain relief, removal of toxin buildup, as well as many other health benefits. Sounds like a good trade, right? 

Always ensure you’re seeing a qualified cupping therapist – such as Dr. Mitra. With over two decades in the field of natural, holistic medicine, Dr. Mitra offers cupping physical therapy and knows how to minimize risks and maximize the effectiveness. If you’re considering this complementary treatment (often combined with an acupuncture treatment), understanding the process and what to expect can help make your experience positive and beneficial. 

Don’t let uncertainty hold you back. Ready to make your cupping appointment? At BH Acuhealth Clinic, we’re here to guide you every step of the way. Our personalized approach ensures that your cupping experience is tailored to your individual needs and preferences. Plus, we collaborate closely with other medical professionals to ensure that you feel supported and confident in your decision. Dr. Mitra Daneshrad


Make an Appointment: (424) 466-8966