Welcome to the first installment of our new column, Star Treatment, in which we dispatch a brave reporter to try an extreme beauty procedure that a celebrity swears by, all to find out if it will make us look just a little bit more like a famous person.
The first time I learned the term “cupping” was in 2004 when Gwyneth Paltrow showed up in photos with what appeared to be circular hickeys on her back. Recently Jennifer Aniston turned up on the red carpet with similar marks, piquing my interest once again. After all, if cupping was good enough for two of Brad Pitt‘s exes, then it must be good enough for me.
Cupping is not exactly new. It’s an Eastern medicine practice that is often used in conjunction with acupuncture to treat everything from stiff necks and shoulders to respiratory problems. The belief is that when you have these problems, it’s caused by blood that’s stagnant, and the cupping helps get your blood circulation moving, not unlike a deep tissue massage.
I wasn’t worried about testing out the treatment until a co-worker asked me if they would be doing something called blood cupping (the name alone scared me!), a process where an incision is made and a suction cup is put over it to drain stagnant blood.
I made an appointment at Exhale Spa with Director of Healing Robert MacDonald, who walked me through the entire process before performing it. There are two methods for cupping: the cup can be left on one section of the body, which is what causes the round marks you often see, but there is also sliding cupping, which means the cup is moved around as it forms a suction. Single cups are applied with a gun-like device that creates suction on its own. For cup sliding, a small alcohol-soaked piece of paper is put into the cup, set on fire, and then the cup is applied to the back. The lack of oxygen causes the fire to go out immediately, but it allows the fascia, or muscle fibers, to raise up into the glass and makes it easy to slide the cup from one area of the body to another. Robert also assured me that blood cupping isn’t practiced in the United States.
For the actual session, I stripped down, put a towel over myself and laid face down onto a table. Robert asked me beforehand what areas I wanted to work on, so I opted for my back, although cupping can be done on other areas of the body, depending on where an injury is. He used his hands to determine where the tension in my back was and placed four cups in the center of my back on either side of my spine and one on each of my shoulder blades. As the cups went on, it felt like someone was grabbing skin and not letting go. Because Robert knew where my tension was, it actually felt good, although one of the cups over my shoulder blade felt a little pinch-y. While those cups stayed put, he used a sliding cup to go over my upper back.
The whole process lasted about 30 minutes and when it was over, I felt like I had just had the most amazing massage. Photos of my back afterward, however, told a different story. Areas of my back were still raised and I had what looked like a severe and slightly purple sunburn. One problem that I hadn’t mentioned to Robert beforehand was a pain in my neck that I’d had for a few months. Since he didn’t put a cup onto that area, I figured the cupping wouldn’t help it, but as I moved around afterward, I could feel that it had completely disappeared. This, according to Robert, is because of the cups over my shoulder blades. All of the nerves and muscles in that area are connected to the ones in your neck. It’s also the reason cupping can get rid of tension or cluster headaches.
The next day the redness had dissipated except for bruises where I had been cupped. Although most of them weren’t sore, I did have one bruise (where the pinch-y cup had been placed) that was extremely tender to the touch. Almost a week later the bruises have almost completely disappeared, but the neck pain is back. With more cupping sessions, however, it is possible to cure my stiff neck altogether, something that a massage wouldn’t be able to achieve.
While I may not be any closer to looking like my favorite celebrities, I finally understand why they’re okay with walking around with cupping marks: the bruises are totally worth the benefits you receive.