How does cupping work?

With the publicity that cupping has received from professional athletes like Michael Phelps, I’m often asked in clinic “How does cupping work?”[1] Clearly, when you create a vacuum around a muscle the tissue below will become stretched. As a result, this mechanism will break scar tissue. Also, it will help to reform the inflamed painful muscle. This article will review the lesser understood mechanism of cupping, detoxification.

As a traditional practice, when you cup a patient there will be a bruise afterwards. This is often a painless visual bruise. In fact, the color of the bruising indicates the severity of the injury can. Also, darker bruises can indicate older injuries. Finally, this bruising is also a sign that the local tissue has been detoxified.

Just what do we mean by “detoxification?”

I’m glad you asked. The term toxin is any substance that is capable of inducing antibody formation and tissue death. Indeed, this also includes substances that your own body produces.[2] In short, detoxification is the process of getting harmful substances out of our system. The kidneys, liver, and lymphatic system are our main sources of detoxification. However, the skin is actually a very important detoxification organ. As an example, when the skin’s detoxification system becomes inhibit it can contribute to diseases like diabetes mellitus.[3]

Cupping’s detoxification benefits

The skin detoxifies the body in a similar fashion to the kidneys. In fact, both organs depend on blood circulating through capillaries. That’s right, your skin works in a very similar way to your kidneys. When a painful muscle is cupped the skin is also cupped. This vacuum on the skin forces an increased amount of blood through the local capillaries thereby enhancing the skin’s detoxification mechanism.[4]

Article Authored by
Dr. Mark VanOtterloo LAc
Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine