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Unlocking the Mystery of Those Mysterious Red Circles: Experiencing Cupping in China

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The confusion surrounding the mysterious red circles seen on U.S. Olympic athletes at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio has made news headlines around the world, the most popular, of course, being a picture of world-renowned swimmer Michael Phelps.

2016 Rio Olympics - Swimming - Preliminary - Men's 200m Butterfly - Heats - Olympic Aquatics Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 08/08/2016. Michael Phelps (USA) of USA is seen with red cupping marks on his shoulder as he competes. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler

So what exactly are all those red circles?

They are not hickeys, I know, I know, sorry to disappoint, it is just one of the many ingenious treatments the Chinese invented thousands of years ago called cupping.

To understand Chinese medicine requires lots of time and research (as someone who grew up in the western culture of the United States), but luckily for me, I happen to be living in this mysterious country where cupping marks are commonplace and the treatment is cheap, and performed at almost any massage parlor or spa, as well as at Traditional Chinese Medicine clinics. So of course, I went to one of these places to learn more about it and experience it myself.

Cupping, like all of Chinese medicine, relies on the basic principle of balance.  The goal being to keep all the bodily systems balanced amongst themselves and their external environment.  The Chinese talk about it in terms of yin 阴 and yang 阳 the two characters literally translating to moon and sun.  Makes sense right, that we would need to keep these two in balance, I mean nature does it for us so incredibly well, sun during the day, moon at night, each phase of the day distributed equally throughout the year.  Now that I think about it, that’s probably why jet lag is so incredibly awful, you’re messing with the balance of day and night.  And as anyone who’s traveled from the U.S. to China or vice versa can tell you, you don’t want to get these two out of balance, they know all too well how much havoc it can wreak on your body to have your days and nights switched.


Anyway, tangent aside, while western medicine focuses on your symptoms to identify a specific cause i.e. bacteria, virus, etc. and treating that specific cause, Chinese medicine takes it one step further to not just diagnose a specific disease, but also to identify how that disease is causing an imbalance in your body, and then focuses on treating the imbalance to restore the flow of energy (qi 气) and return your body to a harmonious state.

The flow of energy within the body is interrupted as a result of many types of disturbances such as: disease, extreme cold, heat, dryness, humidity, or in the case of an Olympic athlete, intense physical activity, which in their case can cause such symptoms such as muscles soreness, cramps, and musculoskeletal injuries.

How does cupping work?

Cupping’s method of restoring balance to your body is to create a vacuum underneath of a glass cup, whether by heating it and then applying it to your skin, or by placing the cup on the skin first, and then manually suctioning the air out, as seen here.


The suction inside of the cup pulls the skin up, away from the muscle, stretching the fascia (connective tissue around the muscle), and increasing blood flow, which in turn helps to flush out any trapped toxins from your body, and restore the proper flow of energy, returning your body to its natural balance.  In a nutshell, increased blood flow speeds healing, and healing restores balance.  Vuala!  The magic of Chinese medicine.

And it’s seriously pretty magical.  While the bruises look nasty and super painful, I promise you, the treatment is nothing to be scared of.  There are multiple different methods of performing cupping therapy, but for my treatment, the woman first did a quick massage of my back applying oil, then she used fire as a way to heat the cup (which when applied to my back creates a vacuum that suctioned up my skin) and rubbed it up and down a few times before taking it off (repeating multiple times), which had somewhat of a guasha effect (scraping – a whole other beast) and then suctioned individual cups across my shoulders and down my back leaving them on for maybe 15 minutes (I’m guessing as I couldn’t actually move to look at my watch).

The result was a ton of purple circular bruises, which, I have to admit, were painful to sleep on that night on our super hard Chinese mattress.  Now for the amazing part, I woke up the next morning with absolutely no stiffness, no need to stretch, nothing, for the first time in years.  My body felt so limber and fresh.   My Chinese friend who took me even mentioned that my skin looked better after my back and chest had broken out from how hot and humid it has been this summer (the woman who performed the cupping kept saying that I had too much humidity trapped in my body).   Going into it with no expectations, as it’s best to do with everything Chinese, I was really pleasantly surprised with the results and will definitely be going back for more treatments in the future!

Rubbing the suctioned cup up and down my back.
Letting the suction cups work their magic.
The final results.

Before western medicine came to China treatments such as cupping, acupuncture, and scraping (guasha), along with various herbal medicines and teas were the only forms of medicine available, and while there are lots of haters out there saying it’s all bogus, and it’s just a “pseudo science”, I hate to break it to them, but for thousands of years this was the only form of medicine available in China, and guess what, it’s the most populous country in the world, so hey, it must be doing something to help treat illnesses.

Why aren’t there scientific studies proving its efficacy?

That’s on us.  It’s just not in the Chinese way of thinking to feel the need to try and scientifically prove something they have known for thousands of years, works.  They all do it, it works, so why fix what ain’t broke?  If people in the west are so skeptical, it is up to us to do the research.  But Chinese medicine is much more “spiritual” in a sense, in that it deals with concepts like qi (energy) that can’t be physically examined so it presents more of a challenge to try and mold Chinese medicine into a scientific study.  Of course, there are ways in which we could make it work, but the Chinese certainly aren’t going to test it for us.  Honestly, they could really care less what the rest of the world thinks about the subject, because to them, it works, they do it, and that’s just the way it is.  No bull…I like it.

Nowadays, since the introduction of western medicine to the east, Chinese medicine is used more as a preventative measure to boost your body’s natural ability to heal itself, so that you can avoid having to go to the hospital to receive harsh medications and surgeries.  I don’t know about you, but I will take any form of therapy that will prevent me from having to end up in the hospital, especially a hospital in China!

Chinese medicine is especially good at treating chronic illnesses and conditions as well, so if you have some muscle soreness, chronic pain, even acne, that you’re looking to get rid of, give Chinese medicine a try.  From personal experience, I would highly recommend cupping and acupuncture.  It is not a quick fix, so expect to go back multiple times before you start seeing a marked difference, but I know it worked for me when nothing else did, so hey, what have you got to lose?  It can only help!


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