Test Drive: I tried cupping therapy, and I actually liked it

Now Gwyneth Paltrow and I have something in common
Michael Phelps Cupping
Michael Phelps at the Rio Olympics

Photograph by David Ramos/Getty Images

Gwyneth Paltrow must’ve rolled her clear, beautiful eyes when she saw the hubbub that arose when folks spotted round, purplish bruises on Michael Phelps’ back during this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio. Ms. Goop—she of the perfect taste, impossibly slim body, and $950 toilet paper—showed off a similar set of bruises in a black strapless dress all the way back in 2004! With endorsements like these, who was I to deny myself the experience of cupping, the 2,000-year-old Chinese massage technique that uses glass cups to create suction and supposedly improve blood flow to the muscles?

So I visited with Christine Legnon, a massage therapist who started her career in 2005 at Natural Body Spa in Virginia-Highland and now operates her own business inside Urban Body Studios. She first became interested in learning the art of cupping after experiencing it herself.

“The suction lifts the connective tissue, allowing the muscle to ‘breathe,’ in effect,” Legnon says. “When the muscle fibers are lifted, oxygenated blood can more easily get through to the tissue. It also moves inflammation up and out of the body, and helps the lymphatic system in detoxification by draining excess fluids. It can help lessen movement restrictions by breaking up scar tissue, and drain blocked sinuses.”

There aren’t a lot of studies to support this; one, from 2012, said cupping has “potential effect” but that “further rigorously designed trials on its use” were necessary to determine its efficacy. Some critics say cupping might make you feel better because of a placebo effect. But here’s Legnon’s take:

“A lot of times when a massage therapist is working out a ‘knot,’ what he or she is doing is pressing on an area in order to create pressure, like when you put a kink in a hose,” she says. “This is so the pressure will build up and eventually push oxygen and nutrient rich blood into the tissue, helping the muscle relax and lengthening it to its original state. Cupping is essentially that same concept but uses negative pressure to pull the tissue and allow things to flow through.”

When I cozied in, face down, on Legnon’s massage table I was a little bit nervous that getting circular hickeys on my back would hurt. Thing is, though, that’s not Legnon’s style. She began by massaging the muscles in a more traditional fashion, then suctioned different gently-heated cups, one at a time, to the skin. (Different-sized cups apply different levels of pressure.) I could feel the skin pull up into the cup, but it was actually very soothing. As I lay there, I tried to think of a similar sensation, and recalled as a kid taking the cap to a Crayola marker and sucking on it so that it suctioned to the tip of my tongue. (Did anybody else do that? No? Um, yeah, me neither. . . . ) It wasn’t uncomfortable at all. Part of the reason is that Legnon moves the cup along the muscle, never lingering too long in any one spot. Hence, the suction doesn’t have time to create a bruise. (Some practitioners believe it’s more effective to leave the cup in place and apply more and more suction, which bruises the skin, leaving the purple circles Phelps and Paltrow have made headlines with.)

Before my visit with Legnon, my shoulders and quads were sore from weightlifting. I’m happy to report that when I walked out of her calm and quiet therapy room, I was bruise-free and felt loose, limber, relaxed—and a little bit special. After all, I’d joined the ranks of gold medal-machine Phelps. And Paltrow. If I couldn’t afford to make her $223 smoothie or find the time to steam my private parts, at least we’d always have cupping in common.

Cupping massage costs $100 for an hour. For more information, visit christinelegnon.com