As we age, pain derived from physical wear and tear is inevitable and natural. Cartilage that cushions the joints may deteriorate, along with the disks that cushion your spine’s vertebrae. Moreover, those who have suffered from chronic pain throughout their lifetime will notice it intensifying as time passes. Whether you’re dealing with organic age-related pains or worsening chronic pain, there are a number of ways to reduce and manage these bodily sensations.
In Considerable’s new series, The Age of Pain Relief, we explore natural pain remedies that are science-backed, practical, and proven to alleviate pain. Health reporter Georgina Berbari talks to an array of experts to bring you all the necessary information on these treatments and to answer the burning question: Is this really worth it?
Cupping therapy for pain relief
Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine that has recently been gaining popularity among athletes. Cupping has been touted for its supreme pain-relieving, recovery-promoting abilities. Non-athletes have also been turning to cupping as a sort of medicinal “deep tissue massage,” or a means of chronic pain-relief management.
Though cupping is now having its trendy moment in the spotlight, it’s not at all new: Cupping therapy dates back to 1550 B.C., existing in some of the oldest medical textbooks in the world.
So how exactly does cupping work to alleviate pain? To find out, I spoke with Dr. Sarah Biffen, a New York State Licensed Acupuncturist and Board Certified Herbalist who frequently uses cupping therapy at her private practice in downtown Manhattan.
“Though there’s a lot of mystique around cupping, it’s actually very low-tech and highly effective,” Biffen tells me. “The traditional form of cupping is used all over the world — I’ll get patients who come in and say that their grandmother used to [do cupping on them] when they were sick.”
Biffen says that during a cupping session, she’ll set a glass cup on fire and after the fire goes out, she’ll suction the cup on the patient’s skin. This creates a sort of vacuum effect as the air inside the cup cools causing blood vessels to expand, inflammation to diminish, and lymphatic drainage to take place.
“Cupping is really great to break up local muscular adhesions, which is why it works well for pain relief, tension, and clearing toxins in the body,” says Biffen. “Because [bodily] tension can lead to improper circulation at its source, sometimes you’ll see [circular] purple or reddish marks after a cupping session.” This is because of blood stagnation creating a block in the body’s “recycling system” — cupping, however, helps unblock this stagnation and get things moving again.
A cupping-related “miracle”
“I have patients that go from being a 10/10 on the pain-scale to being almost completely free of pain,” says Biffen. “I work with a lot of marathoners, for example, who come in for cupping to relieve [soreness].”
An even more potent example is a patient Biffen worked with a year after he had surgery on both of his legs. “He had a ton of scar tissue on both legs from serious surgical intervention on his knees and quads. When I met him, he was barely able to walk — he had to use a cane and was trying every cortisone/pain relief injection.” These injections would give the patient temporary relief, but quickly wear off.
The patient’s scar tissue was creating adhesions in his legs, so he began seeing Biffen for cupping therapy. “We worked together for a year and a half and he was pain-free. He works in the Financial District and [when he started feeling better] he began walking to my private practice after barely being able to walk at all. He was able to get his life back which was amazing to see.”
Biffen makes it a point to tell me that this patient waited a year post-procedure to begin cupping therapy. “I would never perform cupping immediately post-surgery,” she says.
Conclusions on cupping
According to the British Cupping Society, in addition to pain relief, cupping can be used to treat blood disorders such as anemia and hemophilia, rheumatic diseases such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, fertility and gynecological disorders, high blood pressure, migraines, anxiety, and depression.
Biffen notes that, as with most medical interventions, “cupping isn’t appropriate for everybody. If you’re very weak, deficient, or immunocompromised, it might not be the best intervention for you.” This is something that a licensed practitioner will be able to assess during a consultation appointment.
Cupping is fairly safe as long as you’re having it done under the supervision of a licensed professional. Side effects may include discomfort and mild bruising that should fade within a week or so. Biffen does not recommend trying cupping at home.
Talk with your doctor before you start cupping or any other type of alternative or complementary medicine.