An Acupuncturist Answers All Your Questions About Cupping

Here’s what those dark circles mean.

By Caitlin Clark

I still remember the first time two rows of perfectly spaced dark brown circles on someone’s back caught my eye. It was years ago in a yoga class, and I assumed it was cause for concern. It reminded me of a game we used to play as kids called “sting pong,” where a lost point results in a ping-pong-sized welt in the back or chest. (I don’t recommend it!) But it wasn’t long before wellness internet culture informed me what really made those welts: a session of Ventosa massage, AKA cupping.

Featured image by Riley Reed.

woman stretching ventosa massage

Ventosa Massage: The Wellness Trend That’s Making Waves in 2023

It’s been a few years since the ancient Chinese practice of ventosa massage cemented itself in our Western wellness lexicon, but it’s still fair to have plenty of questions about the dramatic-looking body therapy, which has similar results to a massage, but uses an entirely different method. (Instead of pushing down, cupping pulls the layers of muscle and fascia apart to promote blood flow.)

For some expert guidance on cupping (including what exactly those dark circles indicate), we tapped Kurt Laukoter, a Texas acupuncturist who has a master’s degree in Chinese medicine. Kurt is a massage therapist and esthetician at Hiatus Spa in Austin (a favorite of the Camille Styles team!). Kurt shared the what and the why behind all things cupping—plus everything you need to know before making it a part of your wellness routine.

Kurt Laukoter

Kurt Laukoter is a licensed acupuncturist, massage therapist, and esthetician at Hiatus Spa. He received my masters in acupuncture and Chinese medicine at the Texas Health & Science University in Austin, Texas.

woman stretching exercise ball ventosa massage
Image by Belathée Photography

How did cupping or Ventosa massage become more prevalent in Western culture? 

Cupping or Ventosa massage became more popular in Western culture when the 2016 Olympics aired and professional athletes like Michael Phelps had markings from cupping on their bodies. It seems like that moment created a trend for Western culture and soon after, other celebrities and the public began doing cupping as well.

What kind of cupping method does Hiatus use?

At Hiatus, cupping can be used as an add-on to a massage service and there is a specific treatment called the Suit of Cups massage, a 60-minute service that involves cupping and massage.

As the acupuncturist at Hiatus, I use three different forms of cupping including fire with glass, silicone with a pump, and silicone hand squeeze cups. Fire with glass is the strongest form of cupping with the strongest suction, which I use on clients who specifically ask for it or if they are seasoned with cupping treatments. Cupping can be stationary or the cups can be used in a sliding method. With stationary cups, I will typically leave them on for 10-15 minutes.

woman practicing breathwork in bed
Image by Michelle Nash

What are the benefits of Ventosa massage? 

Ventosa massage or cupping therapy benefits include improved blood flow and lymphatic circulation; promotion of deep relaxation; reduction of swelling and congestion; and deep tissue benefits similar to a massage for relieving pain, tightness, and soreness within the body. 

What do the different circles post-cupping indicate?

The different circles post-cupping can be dark purple to red to a lighter skin tone color. If you have dark purple marks after cupping, it is a manifestation of blood stasis in the body according to Chinese medicine. In Chinese medicine, blood stasis can indicate sharp stabbing pain in the body due to the blood being stagnant and not getting proper circulation. If a marking is lighter, there is less blood stasis and that area of the body may not need as much cupping.

I massage an area for five to 10 minutes before cupping because I have noticed that it helps the client have fewer dark marks. Cupping is a safe treatment and the dark marks may look like bruises, but they are a manifestation of the blood stasis that is coming to the surface to be dispersed for pain relief. Clients feel relaxed and lighter after cupping similar to a massage or acupuncture. The marks from cupping are not painful and will usually disappear after a week. 

woman doing yoga on porch outside
Image by Claire Huntsberger

What should you do (or avoid doing) after getting a Ventosa massage? 

After getting a Ventosa massage or cupping therapy, I recommend avoiding extremely hot or cold temperatures and intense workouts. I also recommend avoiding deep tissue massages until the darker marks have faded.