A massage therapist presses a silicone cup to a female client's back.

Cupping therapy is in demand — for good reason.

Some form of cupping therapy has been around for centuries. Ancient cupping practices are recorded in places including Egypt, Greece and China, and were used to treat disease and structural issues of the body.

In recent years in the U.S., cupping has started to be recognized by the general population and you may find more and more of your clients are asking about it. Here’s what you need to know.

How Cupping Works

In ancient times, “cups” were usually animal horns, and users heated those horns with fire to create suction that would draw the skin into the horn cavity. Modern cups are made of glass, bamboo, earthenware and silicone.

Some modern practitioners still use a heat source to create suction, but many more, especially those using silicone cups, manually create a vacuum by pushing on the cup to eject air out and draw skin, fascia and muscle into the cup.

Massage therapists often begin a cupping therapy session with some manual massage work to loosen tight and tense muscles then introduce the cups.

Cups can be used on targeted areas, such as the back, or can be full body, said Brooke Riley, LMT, a licensed massage therapist who is an operations specialist for Massage Heights, a family-owned therapeutic massage and facial services franchise company based in San Antonio, Texas, where Dynamic Cupping Therapy is a popular add-on.

Therapists can use a variety of techniques with the cups, Riley said, including circular strokes on the shoulders, thighs and hips; lengthwise strokes on both sides of the spine and on the rib cage; and shaking the suctioned cups back and forth rapidly to work on adhesions and attached tissues. The cups can also be “parked” on the body for a short amount of time.

While there are few studies on the effectiveness of cupping, the therapy is believed to be helpful in loosening tight muscles and adhesions; increasing blood flow, which helps spur the healing of damaged tissues; and reducing inflammation.

Cupping is not recommended, though, for every person, Riley said. The therapy shouldn’t be used for those who are pregnant; have severe diseases such as heart disease, kidney disease, leukemia or hemophilia; or skin disorders such as dermatosis or allergic dermatitis. Cupping also should be avoided for those with compromised immune systems.

Talk to Clients about Cupping

Clients have lots of questions about cupping, said Kaitlyn Marie Steiner, a lead massage therapist at Massage Heights in Fishers, Indiana. Besides just wanting to know what it is and how it benefits them, clients are most worried about it hurting and the cups leaving marks, she said.

Cupping should not hurt, Steiner said, but, just like manual massage, can cause some discomfort, especially in areas that are sensitive or tight.

The intensity of the marks the cups leave on the body vary from person to person, she said, and depend on how long a cup is parked on one spot and how much suction is applied and on a person’s skin tone. Those with very fair skin may see more pronounced coloration versus those with darker skin tones.

Many clients think cupping causes bruising, said Mitchell Nelson, a lead massage therapist at Massage Heights in Indianapolis, Indiana, but the marks aren’t bruising. “Bruises are a result of impact trauma,” he said, whereas the marks made by cupping “are more closely aligned with that of a minor controlled petechiae effect.”

The vacuuming of the skin, fascia and muscles causes the blood to come to the skin’s surface. “Essentially, to the touch,” he said, “there won’t be any pain or discomfort on the marks as there hasn’t been any real damage to the tissue.”

It can take between a few days to two weeks for the marks to disappear, he said.

Nelson encourages his clients to communicate with him while he is doing the cupping to make sure that the treatment is most effective for that client and to minimize even mild discomfort. Like with the pressure therapists use during manual massage, through communication with clients, the therapist can alter the degree of suction applied via the cups.

Cupping therapy can be intense, so it is important to impress on cupping therapy clients a post-therapy regimen, said Riley.

Mainly, clients who receive cupping therapy should drink water following their session in order to rehydrate their bodies. They should also take the following 24 to 48 hours to rest their bodies – that means taking a break from working out, for example, and they should avoid extreme temperatures for 24 hours following their session.

When talking to clients about cupping and its effects, it’s also important to clarify a common misconception of clients that cupping detoxes their muscles, said Kaitlyn Marie Steiner.

The suction from cupping does stir up fluids in the body’s cells, which are then filtered by the kidneys, but that is not quite the same thing as detoxifying, which is a process of eliminating or neutralizing toxins in the body.

Benefits for You & Your Business

While cupping therapy can be intimidating to get into (depending on state requirements, certification is necessary to offer it), said Edin Demirov, a lead massage therapist at Massage Heights in McKinney, Texas, who has been doing cupping therapy for three years, it is a terrific option for massage therapists to use and offer to clients.

Many clients want deep technical work, which is rough on massage therapists’ bodies who are doing that work over and over again. Cupping therapy, he said, delivers the best of both worlds.

“It allows us to perform deep, myofascial type therapy without the need of exhausting your body day in and day out,” he said. Making the effort to learn (and offer) cupping therapy and other modalities that get clients the results they want without wearing out the therapist will “100% ensure your longevity in this field,” he said.

About the Author:

Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based on the coast of Maine. She frequently reports news and features for MASSAGE Magazine.