AsiaLIFE looks at a lesser-known side of one form of Traditional Eastern Medicine that is popular throughout Cambodia, cupping.

Google ‘cupping’ and you’ll get an array of intimidating links, such as the Buzzfeed video, ‘People Try Cupping Therapy for the First Time’, its thumbnail of a man in agony; or the sub-link to ‘Fire Cupping Cyst’; and the scariest by far, ‘Fire Cupping Dr Oz’.

An image search is far worse: backs full of glass cups that look as if aliens have descended to suck our life force. Why, then, are so many dark circles peeking through the backless dresses of Hollywood’s elite or lurking beneath jerseys in the world’s most expensive locker rooms?

What in the heck is it? Is this just a cliché, or does it really deliver?

The What and the How

If fads come and go, this one has been around for a while – for more than 4,000 years, in fact.

Brought to Cambodia from China during the lengthy interactions between their two schools of traditional medicine sometime between 2000BCE and 900CE, cupping therapy is deeply rooted in the local handling of pain relief. Today, treatments can be found in back alleys, traditional medicine clinics, resort spas and wellness centres.

In treatment, glass or silicon cups are laid on the afflicted area to gently pull the skin through suction, from either a pump or by creating a vacuum.

Glass cups are more commonly used professionally to alleviate pain while silicon cups are recommended for at-home use or when treating cellulite.

Most commonly used throughout Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas is the technique of fire cupping, whereby a vacuum is created within the glass cup through a small cotton-topped baton set alight, also sterilising the apparatus. The air is thereby removed from within the cup which is then placed on the afflicted area – usually the back.

Depending on the purpose of the therapy, the cup is either left in the same area for a few minutes (called ‘fixed cupping’), or is slid with the aid of massage oil (aptly named ‘moving cupping’). At no point does the flame touch the client.

If herbs are used to aid in the detoxification process, a protective cloth is placed between the skin and the cup.

Both experiences are pain-free and are often described as a “reverse massage-like feeling.”

The Why and the Why Me?

Throughout history, cupping has been prescribed and tried in this part of the world to treat pain, increase circulation, detoxify and to eradicate evil thoughts and spirits.

Modern usage of the therapy is recommended to combat stress, aches and pains, allergies, fatigue, flu, colds, anxiety, skin conditions and fever, as well as to promote general relaxation.

Traditional medicine works not only on the issue at hand, but through a holistic approach. Pain manifesting in one area of the body, it says, is the result of an accident and/or a blockage of chi – life’s energy flow.

Therefore, it is often paired with acupuncture. When the cup is applied to the body, healers release this interruption of flow and in doing so promote energising muscle relaxation.

As the skin is gently pulled under the cup, blood flows freely to the localised area. This increase in circulation is the impetus for the healing process. Circulation and chi are restored, so they say, expediting healing and general wellbeing. A pink bruise may remain after the treatment due to the increased blood flow, but will dissipate within a few days, so there’s no long-term scars.

Because of this possible result, if you currently experience oedema, skin ulcers or haemophilia, cupping should only be undertaken after first consulting your general practitioner, and is generally not recommended during pregnancy.

Be Like Beckham

A-list celebrities and athletes from around the world have been showing their praise for cupping since the early 2000s.

The list runs from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Victoria Beckham, Lena Dunham and Justin Bieber, to Andy Murray, Chinese swimmer Wang Qun, most of the New York Mets baseball team and more, with many showing their circular endorsements of the practice at high-brow events – Greek physician Hippocrates was also a fan, if you’re against the establishment.

You need not venture all the way to NYC or London to attain such elite status. Cupping is deeply ingrained in Cambodian traditional medicine, and is readily offered in hygienic and safe environments; some of them more lux than history once afforded.

Known in Khmer as choob khyol – literally sucking the wind – the ancient therapy is widespread across Asia, with between 60 and 70 percent of Cambodians turning to the treatment for relief, according to the National Centre of Traditional Medicine in Phnom Penh.

With an abundance of places to try the therapy about throughout the country, why not try if cupping can shake off your next cold?