J.C. was sitting in her Houston doctor’s office last August when she came across a magazine article on cupping, a Chinese healing practice dating back thousands of years. She’d undergone multiple surgeries for a hereditary disorder that causes the discs in the back to dissolve, but she was still in pain, and the heavy doses of medication she was taking had a host of side effects, to boot.
So, feeling she had nothing to lose, the 45-year-old mother of two, who asked us to refer to her as just J.C., decided to give cupping a try. “When the doctors say you’ll never be able to touch your toes again and you can’t raise your knees up high,” she says, “you’re willing to try anything to alleviate the pain and change your daily life.”
J.C. booked an appointment with Lori Earley, who provides cupping and acupuncture at her private practice, Phoenix Rising Acupuncture. A week after the first session, J.C. says, she noticed significant improvement. She was able to perform everyday activities that had been excruciating, such as getting up from bed in the morning, walking up and down the stairs, and driving.
Cupping is a centuries-old Chinese practice that involves placing glass or plastic cups on the skin and using heated air or a rubber pump to create a vacuum and suction the skin, causing fresh blood to circulate. Practitioners say this particularly aids injured areas, around which blood tends to stagnate.
The treatment leaves purple, circular marks. “If there’s trauma in a specific area, you’ll notice it immediately,” explains Earley, who, in 2010, left the pharmaceutical industry to study Chinese medicine before launching her practice in 2014. “The level of severity depends on how dark the circles are; if they’re a deep purple, it means there’s a lot of stagnant blood.”
The treatment is said to help improve circulation and loosen muscle tension that causes back pain, stiff neck, headaches, “frozen shoulder” and congestion. It can even be used for cosmetic purposes, helping to reduce inflammation and wrinkles. Adherents include celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Kim Kardashian, as well as Olympians like Michael Phelps, whose grape-colored back marks drew national attention during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Not all of that attention was positive. Slate, for example, published a story warning that, while the practice is probably safe, studies have been inconclusive, and those who report positive results may be experiencing a placebo effect.
But it’s hard to argue with believers like J.C. “As long as the results continue to be positive, there’s no reason to stop doing it,” she says with a laugh. “Other parts of the world have been using it for years, and they’re walking around looking good. It might not be bad to take a few lessons.”
- Houston Cupping Therapy provides traditional cupping treatments, as well as variations meant to treat everything from cellulite to detoxification. 12645 Memorial Dr., Ste. B2, Memorial
- After a cupping session at The Center for Healing Arts & Sciences, ask about acutonics, a practice that uses a tuning fork on acupuncture points. 1728 Bissonnet St., Rice University Area
- Element 5 OM offers every alternative practice you didn’t know you needed: health coaching, acupuncture, shiatsu, cupping, and Chinese medicine. 2503 Robinhood, Ste. 120, West University Place