Hot cupfuls of relief: Heat and suction are said to soothe sore muscles

  • “I get a rush of euphoria after treatment and I sleep better,” Stone says. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • With the help of a salve applied before the placing of the cups, licensed acupuncturist Jennifer Nery is able to slide the cups around and reach different areas on Stone's shoulder and back. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The cups can be applied to different parts of the body. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Licensed acupuncturist Jennifer Nery practices cupping at CLINIC Alternative Medicines in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Acupuncturist Jennifer Nery, left, of CLINIC Alternative Medicines in Northampton, administers a cupping treatment, which is applying heated glass cups to the body to ease muscle pain. The practice gained widespread attention when Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps revealed his trainer uses a form of the treatment on him. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Nery works with Christina Stone of Easthampton, who first tried cupping three years ago after injuring her knee while running a marathon. Now she is getting treatment on her back for injuries she received in a car accident. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • She then places them on the client’s body where the cooling air inside lifts the skin acting as a sort of reverse massage.. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The skin is lubricated with salve so that the cups can be easily moved around. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • To begin the procedure, Nery lights a flame to heat the inside of the cups before placing them, open end down, on a client’s skin. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Licensed acupuncturist Jennifer Nery works with Christina Stone of Easthampton during a moving cupping session at CLINIC Alternative Medicines in Northampton on Wednesday. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Licensed acupuncturist Jennifer Nery works with Christina Stone of Easthampton during a moving cupping session at CLINIC Alternative Medicines in Northampton on Wednesday. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • With the help of a salve applied before the placing of the cups, licensed acupuncturist Jennifer Nery is able to slide the cups around and reach different areas on Stone's shoulder and back. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • The cups can leave reddened skin or bruise-like marks. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/22/2016 4:54:06 PM

Using forceps, acupuncturist Jennifer Nery twirls a flaming piece of cotton around the inside of a thick glass cup before pressing the cup, open side down, on Christina Stone’s back.

The heat inside, she says, will cause suction on Stone’s skin, increasing blood circulation and speeding up the healing of sore muscles.

Stone, 30, is lying on a table in a back room at CLINIC Alternative Medicines on Main Street, Northampton, where she comes almost weekly to get this therapeutic treatment called cupping, a form of Chinese medicine.

The knots in her back pop and crunch as Nery slides four of these glass cups up and down her spine. The suction from the cups can cause the capillaries under the skin to rupture and leave behind marks that looks like giant hickies, but Stone says it feels great.

“It’s like a reverse massage and it’s like you have small beads or tapioca beads being crushed,” she says.

By the middle of the session, Stone’s back looks like a ripe tomato. “Looking good, nice and rosy,” says Nery, as she pushes the cups around Stone’s back.

While Stone sought cupping treatment for the first time almost three years ago for a knee injury and is now receiving treatment for her back, there has been a recent surge of people seeking this remedy, says Nery. Thanks to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.

When Phelps won his latest gold medal in Rio, earlier this month, viewers around the world could see numerous big purple, bruise-like marks on his shoulders. He said they resulted from cupping treatment and suddenly the practice was in the limelight. Nery’s clinic went from getting no calls about the treatment in a typical week to getting six to eight calls.

“The faddish interest that we have had these last couple weeks has really stood out,” she says. “Last week it was crazy.”

People typically seek the treatment to relieve back pain after years spent hunched over computer screens or after suffering sports injuries, Nery says. Some clients come for ongoing conditions, like inflammation of the sciatic nerve, which causes radiating pain down the legs. Others simply just enjoy the pulling, warm sensation, she says.

“I get a rush of euphoria or energy after treatment and I sleep better,” Stone says. “It’s a tension, stress relief.”

An injured athlete’s relief

Unlike the air pump that Phelps’ personal trainer uses on him to create suction to ease his muscle soreness before swim meets, the Northampton clinic uses the heat of a flame for a similar effect.

During a 20-minute session, Nery lights a piece of cotton on fire, which is then poked inside the glass cup with forceps before she gently and quickly presses the cup to Stone’s skin, making sure the heat doesn’t escape.

“There is going to be fire behind you, so don’t jump off the table,” Nery says.

The skin is quickly lifted inside the glass. “You can see it really pulls,” Nery says. She lubricates the skin with salve so the cups can slide freely around the whole back.

This is the same treatment that Stone received around her knee a few years ago after hitting it on a rock during a marathon race in the mountains of West Virginia.

Her knee was bruised and had ballooned to double its normal size. She iced it, kept off of it, but pain persisted. That’s when a friend told her about cupping.

With only three treatments in two weeks, the pain in Stone’s knee was gone, she says, the swelling went down, and she was back to trail running in just a few days.

“With my knee there was immediate relief and it hasn’t flared up again,” she says. “It was pretty impressive.”

A lifelong athlete, after she recovered she would run four days a week along the trails on the Mount Holyoke Range.

This jogging routine came to a halt again in March after a car crash left her with three fractured vertebrae in her spine and numbness from nerve damage in her right arm.

Since the accident, cupping, she says, has given her some relief by soothing muscle tension in her back. She said the treatment has also increased mobility in her neck, which was in a brace for several months after the accident.

While she still struggles with muscle tension, cupping takes the edge off, Stone says. Stretching has become easier. Her anxiety and depression have lessened, she says.

Coupled with pain medication and physical therapy, its just one more way she can feel better.

“Coming here definitely helps,” she says. “Your back is warm, you feel energy, you feel like you are taking care of yourself, like you are being healthy and clean.”

Research lacking

While there has been little credible medical research into the treatment, clients are generally happy with cupping, often noticing a decrease in pain, Nery says.

“Almost 90 percent of people like it. When they love it, they really love it.”

The U.S. National Institutes of Health says on its website that the placebo effect may account for some claimed health benefits of the practice. It also cites recent research that found cupping could be an effective treatment to ease neck and lower-back pain in the short term.

“Cupping shows a lot of promise, but the research has been poorly done so far,” Nery says.

She, too, discovered the remedy after a sports injury.

Over 15 years ago, as a student rugby player at Smith College in Northampton, Nery hurt her shoulder in a collision with another player during a tackle. Later in the game, Nery did further damage to her shoulder when she lifted another player off the ground. She heard what she thought was tendons tearing, which left her with ongoing pain.

But after cupping treatment, she says, the pain went away. It “felt so good.”

“I’ve seen so many people who can’t get touched by anything else and it helps them,” she says. “There are people who’ve had that chronic shoulder pain for years and they walk out of here and say: ‘Wow, it’s not here anymore.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.




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