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Integrative Medicine: Curious About Cupping?

17 August 2016

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Last week it seemed Michael Phelps mesmerized the world, and not only because of his multiple gold medals. Many people wondered about those mysterious circular bruises on his back and shoulders. What could they possibly be?

We asked Seneca Dewbre, a licensed acupuncturist with the INTEGRIS Wellness Center who has a Master of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine degree, for her insight.

What is cupping?

Cupping falls under the umbrella of Traditional Chinese Medicine. A little refresher: Integrative Medicine combines modern Western medicine with established alternative therapies from around the world. By connecting modern medicine with ancient practices from other healing traditions, Integrative Medicine seeks to maintain a person's health holistically and to harness the body's natural resistance to disease. TCM is a set of practices, established in China over 4,000 years ago, that falls under the Integrative Medicine umbrella.

Acupuncture is the most common and well-known practice of TCM. But TCM is an entire system that includes acupuncture, but is not limited to it. To put it simply, TCM is a way of looking at someone's physical and mental health by seeing everything as connected, and considers everything in context. It takes a macro approach, focusing on wellness, self-healing and the interaction of mind and body.

Cupping is a TCM practice an acupuncturist can use in conjunction with acupuncture to help aid recovery. The acupuncturist (or other cupping therapist) uses small glass cups placed on the skin and then heated or pumped to achieve suction. One way to achieve suction is to use a flame, which is quickly inserted and removed with a hemostat into the cup. The cup is then set on top of the skin to achieve the suction. It is important to note the flame is never directly on the skin or near it.

What does suction have to do with it?

Once the suction is achieved, there are several techniques that can be used, depending on the ailment. Practitioners can slide the cups or keep them stationary. In essence, think of cupping as an upside down massage. Instead of adding pressure to the muscle, cupping pulls the skin and superficial muscle layer upward. This allows the muscles to loosen and increases blood flow to the muscle for healing. The massage effect also calms the nervous system.

Why are there bruises and does cupping hurt?

The suction creates a vacuum that pulls the skin upward into the cup, breaking blood capillaries and creating round bruises. Those bruises show that scar tissue is breaking down and blood flow is increasing to the area. There can be some mild discomfort, but most patients find cupping to be quite an enjoyable part of treatment.

What does cupping treat?

People get it for many purposes, including to help with sore muscles, pain, inflammation, blood flow, relaxation and well-being, and as a type of deep-tissue massage. It can be used to treat neck pain, back pain, headache, cellulite treatment, anxiety and high blood pressure.

What does the science say?

There haven’t been many scientific studies on cupping. Western medicine is very evidence-based, and likes to use treatments that have been thoroughly researched. But I wouldn’t want to discount cupping's effects -- just because it is alternative medicine doesn’t mean some people won't see a benefit. According to ancient manuscripts, the Egyptians may have used cupping therapy as early as 1,550 B.C. It’s also found in Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures, and has been used in hospitals in China since the 1950s. I believe since cupping has been part of an organized medical system for several thousand years, it shouldn't be discounted too quickly.

Does INTEGRIS offer cupping?

INTEGRIS does not currently offer cupping therapy. If you want to try cupping, you should talk to a specialist who is well-versed in the practice. And an important word of caution: it's not a do-it-yourself treatment.

Seneca Dewbre has a Master of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine degree and is currently completing her doctorate specialization in gynecology. Additionally, she is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and licensed by the Texas Medical Board. Oklahoma does not have a licensing certification for acupuncturists at this time. She has experience in both private practice as well as outpatient services within a hospital setting and has 3,700 hours of clinical training. Seneca offers acupuncture treatment at the INTEGRIS Troy and Dollie Smith Wellness Center. 

If you would like to talk to Seneca about TCM or schedule an acupuncture treatment with her, contact her at the Wellness Center at 405-773-6600.