Here's How Cupping Therapy Actually Works

Living in Asia for the last few months, I've become totally obsessed with Eastern Medicine as a way to cure my ailments, which is how I found myself laying face down on a table with burning plastic cups stuck to my back thanks to cupping therapy.

I went back to working out after a few weeks (OK fine, a few months) off, and it did a number on my back. I tweaked my back and my shoulders were so sore I could barely carry my every day tote. I recently got a massage that freaked me out a little bit (too much pressure in all the wrong places) so wanted to find something that would achieve the same results without the risk of making things worse.

I had first found out about cupping when Michael Phelps showed up at the Olympics with creepy purple bruises on his back, and have seen it everywhere since I moved to Asia in February. The ancient Chinese therapy involves putting special cups on your skin for a few minutes to create suction. It helps with pain, inflammation and blood flow. Basically, it has the same effects as a deep tissue massage.

After signing my life away via an exhaustive release form, I laid facedown on a massage table and hoped for the best. It was a bright white room that looked more like a doctor's office than a massage parlor, and didn't give off anything even remotely close to "relaxing" vibes. Almost immediately, the therapist whipped out a blow torch, at which point I couldn’t help myself from screaming “holy shit” and sitting right back up.

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She promised me that the torch wasn't going to go anywhere near my skin, and that it was only going to be used to heat the cups to make the treatment more effective. I was skeptical, but I cautiously laid back down.

As it turns out, the flames are the "active ingredient" in the cupping process. When the flame goes out and the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum which causes your blood vessels to expand. This makes your skin swell and darken, which is how Michael Phelps (and later, me) ended up with all those bruises on his back.

After I confirmed that my face and hair weren't about to be burned off, two therapists started the treatment by rubbing four glass cups in circular motions up and down my back and legs. It felt super weird, but wasn't necessarily bad. This, apparently, was meant to stimulate blood flow.

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After five minutes, one of the women took the blow torch back out, heated the cups one by one and suctioned them to my back, shoulders and legs. Every time I moved I could hear them clinking together, and I was reprimanded more than once for my inability to sit still. It didn't hurt, per se, but it felt like my skin was being sucked off of my back and was kind of freaky and uncomfortable.

Zoe Weiner

The cups stayed on my back for five minutes while I took selfies and tried not to panic, and then the therapists removed them with the same circular motion. In less than 15 minutes, the entire process was complete.

After the fact, I was shocked at how good my back felt. The tension I'd been holding in my shoulders for the last few years was totally gone, which is something no deep-tissue massage has ever been able to achieve. My back completely stopped hurting, and I felt genuinely amazing.

Zoe Weiner

So good, in fact, that it was worth all the weird stares I got for a week afterward about why there were enormous purple splotches all over my body. So #worthit.

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