What is “Fire” Cupping?
Fire cupping is an ancient, and the original, Chinese Medicine style of cupping that’s been practiced for thousands of years in the Far East. As far back as 28 AD, cupping was depicted on painted silks. This art/science is still being practiced as mainstream medicine and has been applied as a formal modality since 1950 in hospitals throughout China and elsewhere in the world.
More recently, cupping has been gaining popularity here in the West, as more and more professional athletes and Hollywood celebrities sport their “cupping marks” on social media, and give rave reviews of the therapy.
Fire Cupping is, and feels, quite a bit different than other versions of cupping, and though it may sound intimidating, it is most certainly a good, and safe method of suction-based therapy – when properly administered by a trained therapist – to help detoxify and improve the body’s blood flow.
Unlike other cupping methods, the suction isn’t created using a pump or plunger, but rather a cotton ball soaked in pure alcohol, that is then lit on fire and passed briefly inside the cup before applying to the client. Obviously, because of the use of the flame, the cups used in fire cupping therapy must be glass, not plastic, silicon or any other material that might burn or melt. As the oxygen inside the cup is consumed by the flame, and the air inside the cup cools, a vacuum is created, and the resulting negative pressure draws the client’s skin and muscle tissue up into the cup, while keeping the cup firmly in place.
How is “Fire” Cupping Different From Other Styles of Cupping?
The biggest difference with fire cupping versus any other style of cupping, is the swift motion that is required to capture the heat quickly, before positioning the glass cup on the client’s body. This means that the practitioner needs to be very quick and precise in positioning the cup on the patient. While we attempt to be as graceful and gentle as possible, the speed required in placing the cup may be a bit startling to the client at first. This is, of course, not the case with positioning of silicone or plastic cups, as they can be applied slowly, and the suction applied gradually. However, once the client experiences the placement of the first one or two fire cups, it’s not a big deal; they are no longer startled as they are accustomed to and ready for the point/moment of contact sensation.
The suction of the fire cups can be more “intense” due to the increased amount of vacuum achievable against the rigidity of the glass cup, but as always, should be tailored to the comfort level of the client. The potential for increased negative pressure tends to offer a more efficient means for removing toxins trapped in the muscle tissue and circulatory system. This is why most clients who have experienced multiple methods of cupping will choose fire cupping over others, especially when detoxification is the main goal.
As with any other style of cupping, fire cups can be moved or dragged about on the body for the purpose of applying a pulling action to separate tight or knotted muscle fiber or to break up the more challenging adhesions. In a complementary action to traditional massage, this acts as a directionally “opposite” method of separating stuck and knotted fibers.
Conversely, when the intention is aimed more toward detoxification or providing a more “gentle” way of working on a tight or knotted area, any style (glass, silicone, or plastic) cups can simply be strategically positioned and left in place for a set amount of time. Either way, similar to the various levels of Swedish massage vs deep tissue massage techniques, this therapy can be performed gently for an extremely pleasant and a relaxing sensation, or very intense and borderline uncomfortable to achieve a deeper therapeutic effect. As with every treatment, there are many variables that the client and practitioner need to discuss before determining which modality to use and how much depth is appropriate within the modality itself.
Cupping is an extremely popular therapy used by both amateur and professional athletes, whether Olympic Gold medal winner, Michael Phelps, or the average Joe working out at the local gym, as it helps promote faster recovery from workouts and aids in removing the build up of lactic acid that leads to muscle soreness. It also hugely benefits the fascia – the sheath of connective tissue knitted in between and on the surface of muscle tissues. Cupping assists in keeping the fascia lubricated, which allows the muscles to move more freely and easily, thereby increasing range of motion. Healthy range of motion is imperative for maintaining proper form throughout movements and is instrumental in protecting athletes from injuries.
According to Kevin Rindal, [Chiropractor serving the USA Swimming team at the Summer Olympics in Brazil, 2016] “The intent [of cupping] is to minimize fascial restriction so range of motion is more smooth. Instead of pushing down on muscle and fascia, as massage does, cupping pulls the layers of muscle and fascia apart, much like separating the layers of a flaky pastry, so fluid can flow more easily in between them to keep them well-oiled.
Why do Many People Leave a Session with Pink or Purple Circular Marks?
The deposits that surface on the skin will dissipate anywhere from within a few hours up to several weeks, depending on the amount of stagnation and the client’s post treatment activities. The color and pattern of the marks depend on the level of stagnation in the area, and will range from a bright red to dark purple, usually lasting 3 days to a week – sometimes longer if the person is very sick or sedentary.
If there is no stagnation present, there will be only a pink marking which disappears in a few minutes to a couple of hours. If the person receiving treatment sweats a lot (on a daily basis) – no marks may ever occur. People who live, work, or play in toxic environments (or were exposed to a heavy dose of toxic material) may consistently require detoxification and this will be revealed by a consistent colored mark left behind.
Sites holding old trauma or injury may require multiple cupping treatments to remove all stagnation. Follow up treatments will yield progressively lighter marks as the pathogens, toxins, and healing byproducts are systematically removed from the body.
A 2010 review of 550 clinical studies, including 73 randomized controlled trials—which are considered the gold-standard study in the science community— concluded that the “majority of studies show potential benefit on pain conditions, herpes zoster and other diseases.” Another 2014 review of 16 studies with 921 people reported short-term pain reduction from cupping.
“I think you have to step back and say, if this has been part of an organized medical system for three thousand to five thousand years, we probably shouldn’t be too quick or too arrogant to dismiss it out of hand as Western scientists sometimes do.” – Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program [TIME – Aug 8,2016].
If Olympic Gymnast Alexander Naddour believes that cupping is his “best spent money” in the area of therapy, it stands to reason that it could very well have merit for the rest of us as well, whether we are professional competitors, average athletes, or just regular old “weekend warriors.”
In the final analysis, fire cupping is a very conservative treatment that can yield big results; and is definitely worth a try!
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