I’m lying on a table in lower Manhattan, and the life is being sucked out of me. Literally, there’s a suction cup in the middle of my spine, prying up my skin into a vacuum of pain. Could I become paralysed? I wonder in silent discomfort. For the record, I can be quite dramatic. But if Gwenyth Paltrow can do this, so can I.
For the first time ever, I’m trying the treatment "cupping.” This is a pretty straightforward way to say that a cup is being placed on my skin, creating pressure, and removing oxygen from the area.
The practice is a traditional Chinese and Middle Eastern form of alternative therapy that people have used for thousands of years. Some say it treats an array of health conditions, from boils on the skin to asthma, pain, indigestion, and the common cold, according to the Kootenay Columbia College of Integrative Health Sciences. Others disagree. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that while some research has been done on cupping, it hasn’t been high quality. The practice might help reduce pain, but “the evidence for this isn’t very strong," according to the NCCIH.
So, I went looking for my own anecdotal evidence. I’d seen too many spot-covered celebrities — Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Michael Phelps — to believe there was nothing to this seemingly magical craze. I saw the cupping marks popping up on people all over New York City. Guys I dated had them. So did strangers enjoying picnics next to me in the park, and in line at the supermarket. So, I went to LING Skincare for a treatment.
When I walked into the shiny white-tiled spa, I felt more relaxed almost immediately. There was a diffuser at the reception, and I was immediately offered a cup of refreshing “cranberry apple zinger” tea. Then I headed back to the heated massage table to receive my treatment from LING’s Aja Maltin.
“Cupping is great for athletes, as well as anyone who is suffering from stiffness, muscle tension, poor circulation, chronic pain and insomnia,” Maltin says. “[It] assists in relieving the stagnation in the blood that is traditionally thought to lead to disease in Chinese medicine.”
A study in the journal PLOS One noted that practitioners say cupping creates either hyperemia or homeostasis — this means it can either increase or decrease your blood flow underneath the cups. A Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine study looked into the fact that athletes were using the method for recovery, but couldn't confirm it worked.
After rubbing a Theramu CBD oil on my back, Maltin got started. Although some traditional practitioners use a cupping method that involves lighting a flame and touching it to a regular glass to remove the oxygen, LING has an advanced suction machine, with different attachments. There are two kinds of cupping — wet and dry. The former involves making an incision in the skin and drawing blood from the area during the suctioning. This was dry cupping. Maltin said the machine — which vibrated and hummed over the soothing music in the room — had settings from 1 to 10. She started at about a five on me. It felt strange, but not bad on my neck and upper back. Almost pleasant. Like a leech was trying to absorb all of my pain. She moved down my back and to my sides, which felt tingly in a good way. Like when your hands start to warm back up after they’ve been gloveless in the winter. There were some fart noises that came with the suction, but only a few.
Before working on the center of my spine, she switched out the cup attached to the machine. This new one vibrated more. The pressure got intense. For a second, I was filled with dread. This was too intense for my weak little body. It was like a Rumba had gone rogue on my lumbar and wouldn’t stop sucking until I surrendered my ability to walk. I tried to muscle through it. I didn’t want to show weakness. But I ultimately had to politely hint at the fact that I was overwhelmed by the pressure. She turned down the setting for me. Then came relief. As she moved the cup down the rest of my back, it felt soothing. Like a wave of calm washed over me. After the treatment, she told me to drink lots of water, like you would with any other kind of massage. Some people have side effects — such as dizziness.
This treatment is notorious for causing red circle marks or bruises on the skin. I definitely had spots, but they were pretty lightly coloured. I wasn’t quite 2004 red-carpet Gwyneth Paltrow. Not to be gauche, but they looked like giant hickies after a few days.
Maltin told me the suction “creates a negative pressure which helps release tension.” I did notice that my lower back didn’t hurt as much as usual during my period for the rest of that week (although I later found out cupping isn't recommended during menstruation). Can I say for sure that that was due to the cupping? No. But I also couldn't discount it.
As for cupping's other claims, I also can't confirm or deny any of them. This is mostly because I don't fit the bill for any of the ailments it's said to remedy. At the time I was cupped, I didn't have asthma, acne on my back, or too much overwhelming pain in my life (knock on wood). But it did make me feel tingly and relaxed. And who doesn't want that? I'd go back again, if only for that cranberry apple zinger tea.