Those circles in various shades of brown that adorn the arms and backs of the UAE’s fit set — yoga enthusiasts and CrossFit junkies alike — are tell-tale signs the bearer has been doing cupping therapy.
The traditional alternative treatment has some pretty big global fans, with Michael Phelps, Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Aniston and Justin Bieber have all been spotted with cupping’s tell-tale bruise marks.
During a 30-minute treatment a therapist set glass “cups” on various parts of the body. The cups have been heated to create a suctioning effect, and are meant to stimulate blood flow, draw out impurities, reduce inflammation and generally boost health.
They leave tender blue circles that fade, and the skin tingles, a bit like a soft bruise. Cupping wasn’t actually fully legal until the end of 2016, although the treatments were available. The Arab world even has its own form of cupping, called hijama. This involves tiny cuts to the skin, with heated cups placed atop to draw out supposedly “contaminated blood.” All that is well and good — but does cupping actually work?
“Cupping’s supposed benefits include alleviating inflammation, removal of toxins and myofascial decompression,” says Ross Gilmour, director of Embody Fitness. Gilmour and his wife have tried the Chinese version of cupping at TCM Acupuncture in Al Barsha, Dubai.
“Anecdotally, we felt a benefit, but it’s hard to say if this was purely the placebo effect. Cupping needs to be taken with a pinch of salt until further studies are conducted.”
Stephanie Mullet, a personal trainer and massage therapist at Body and Soul Evolution, is considering adding cupping to her range of services.
“I’ve had many cupping treatments,” she explains. “I first got it done at a traditional Chinese medicine centre with heated glass cups all over my back. I found it pretty uncomfortable at first and had to focus on deep breathing to relax.” The process left her a little sore but the marks faded in around a week.
“It makes me feel relaxed and lighter immediately after the treatment. Then it takes a while for blood to circulate, which is when I feel the full benefits,” she claims.
Gray Tan, acting MD at Natural Healing Acupuncture Center Dubai, stresses the benefits of cupping for athletes. “It’s highly effective in recovering from the strenuous training they subject their bodies to. During exercise, athletes develop micro-tears in their muscles and tissues. The stress leads to a build-up of toxins. If not cleared, these toxins hamper the healing of tissues,” says Tan.
“Cupping breaks down the chemical compounds into simpler forms that can be expelled by the body,” Tan claims.
If you’re considering cupping, do it smartly. UAE health officials note that those who are pregnant, children, the elderly, blood donors and people with anemia or who have fever shouldn’t do cupping.
Skip it if you have certain health problems, agrees Gilmour. “Research suggests that cupping is harmful if you’re [very] thin or obese, due to capillary expansion, excessive fluid accumulation in tissues and rupturing of blood vessels.”
Allow time for the bruising to go away between treatments. Go somewhere reputable. And as always, consult a medical expert before diving too deep into any treatment.
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist. In addition to working as editor-in-chief of Women's Health Middle East and Men's Health Middle East, Danae has written for The Sunday Times, CNN Travel, Dubai Tourism, The Guardian, Afar, Bloomberg and many more. She's based in Dubai and is a trainer at Crank. instagram.com/danaemercer