Cupping or Acupuncture: Which Alternative Body Treatment Is Right for You?

Updated 04/20/19

As cool as it is to have a variety of healing techniques available to us—some relatively new, others centuries-old but new to us Westerners—it can be quite confusing to decipher their differences (heck, even get their names straight). Rolfing? Gua sha? We can't fault anyone for feeling confused or overwhelmed.

Which is why we thought that as the popularity of alternative wellness continues to rise, it might be helpful to learn the differences between the most widely available treatments, their benefits, and what you can expect from an appointment. You might find something that totally works for you—or if nothing else, you can at least feel like you and Gwyneth are on the same page. (Kidding. Ish.)

Keep reading for our glossary of alternative body treatments. 

What is it? A fundamental component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture involves activating certain points on the body (called meridians) to help optimize energy flow, usually with tiny needles. Research on the efficacy of the treatment has been historically conflicted, but a major 2012 study found that acupuncture can help ease chronic pain and migraines. Some research also suggests that it can help with infertility.

Who should try it? Acupuncture is used to help alleviate a wide variety of ailments and issues, ranging from low energy and muscle pain to allergies and reproductive problems. Every meridian point on the body is connected to different organs, so your practitioner will try to stimulate those correlating points based on whatever issues you’re trying to work on. (You can learn more about the specifics of those points here.)

What can I expect? It depends on the clinic, but typically you’ll discuss your issues with your practitioner and lie down during the treatment, which can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. No, it doesn’t hurt—the needles are that tiny. Most people find the treatment very relaxing—another reason why it might help with pain relief. 

What is it? Another TCM treatment, gua sha translates roughly to "scraping bruises"—which should give you an idea that the practice is, uh, intense. Practitioners use a smooth scraping instrument—often a ceramic spoon—to apply pressure and rub the skin, usually to help with muscle pain. (Research has found that it is effective with pain relief in the short term.)

Who should try it? Mentally file this as another option to help with tense shoulders or neck pain.

What can I expect? Again, it's not for the faint of heart. It's not immensely painful, but it is intense in the way that a deep tissue massage can be very intense. Like cupping, the most alarming part is the bruising or red marks that it can leave behind, though these typically fade within a couple of days. (If you're curious at how gnarly this looks, head on over to this great review at Harper's Bazaar.)

What is it? Unlike traditional saunas, which heat the body from the outside, infrared saunas provide "radiant heat" via light that penetrates the body to heat it from within. Purported benefits include dispelling toxins, boosting the metabolism, and pain relief. Studies have shown that this kind of therapy can help improve pain associated with arthritis, cardiovascular issues, and the quality of life of those with diabetes.

Who should try it? While it can help target specific issues, many also find that it helps with stress relief and overall wellbeing. Some believe it torches calories. (One skeptical Byrdie editor was a convert when she emerged from her infrared sauna pod with a positively glowing complexion.)

What should I expect? Infrared saunas usually resemble tanning beds. It lights up during your treatment, which can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour (or even longer). You'll feel warm—you might even sweat a little—but not overwhelmingly hot. (And if you do, you can ask the practitioner to adjust the temperature to feel more comfortable.) 

What is it? Developed in Japan in 1922, reiki is a form of "energy healing" by way of therapeutic touch. The practitioner lays his or her hands on the patient to transfer "universal energy" and balance chi. As such, it is difficult to research, though some studies show that it is effective in relieving anxiety and stress. 

Who should try it? There are no negative side effects to reiki, but those looking to relieve tension or boost their mood are more likely to have success than those with specific physical ailments.

What can I expect? It's pretty straightforward: You'll lie on a table or bed, fully clothed, and your practitioner will gently lay her hands on top of your body. Typically the environment is designed for optimal relaxation, with quiet music and aromatherapy. 

What is it? Similar to acupuncture or acupressure, reflexology operates on the idea that different pressure points in your hands and feet are connected to different organs. Massage therapists target these points to help relieve correlating ailments. It's a popular treatment, but research on its efficacy is very limited.

Who should try it? With minimal adverse side effects, anyone can try reflexology, whether they're interested in seeing if it works for a specific ailment or are hoping to relieve general tension.

What can I expect? If you've ever had a hand or foot massage, you pretty much know the drill. The only difference is that your practitioner will apply pressure to specific points.

What is it? Quick anatomy lesson: Your body's lymphatic system functions to rid your tissues of metabolic waste and toxins. Lymphatic drainage is essentially a kind of massage that helps manually kick this system into gear when it's a little sluggish, helping to further detoxify the body, boost your immune system, and fight fatigue. 

Who should try it? Your doctor might recommend the treatment specifically, but it's worth trying the massage if you're feeling chronically tired or sluggish. On a smaller scale, estheticians swear by this kind of massage to help perk up the face. (And you can do it at home!)

What can I expect? A gentle massage. Your practitioner might target a specific part of the body, or just apply the treatment generally.

What is it? Another Paltrow fave, rolfing is kind of what you'd get if you combined a visit to the chiropractor with a deep-tissue massage: The practitioner manipulates and adjusts your body's soft tissue for optimal alignment and function. Research is limited, but physical therapists believe that it at least has similar benefits to an old-fashioned massage, and can possibly help loosen up and realign any compression in your joints and tissue.

Who should try it? Consider checking it out if you have a desk job and/or spend a lot of time looking down at your phone. We have a tendency to hunch over our screens, and you'd be amazed (and possibly horrified) at what that does to your muscles, joints, and spine. 

What can I expect? The practitioner is trying to manipulate your body into alignment, so expect a little bit of tugging, pulling, and deep kneading. It might be a tad painful at times, but it's worth it for the sweet relief afterwards. (In other words, you might be able to kiss that pesky neck pain goodbye.)

What is it? A practice that dates back as early as 3000 B.C. throughout Asia and Europe, cupping is basically just what it sounds like: Practitioners use cups to create suction over targeted areas of the skin. "Dry cupping" stops at that, but "wet cupping" involves pin-pricking the skin as a form of controlled bleeding. In purported benefits range from culture to culture, but in TCM, cupping is believed to move stagnant energy and dispel toxins. As with many healing practices, studies are limited, but researchers have found benefits to cupping for different ailments, specifically involving pain management.

Who should try it? Cupping is most popularly used for pain management, often for sore muscles or knots. (We've found it helpful for our text neck.)

What can I expect? The sensation is… odd. It really just feels like there's a very tight suction cup pinching your skin, though it typically isn't painful. For most, the biggest nuisance is the red marks the treatment leaves behind. (Gwyneth knows.) Most treatments last around five to 10 minutes.

Have you tried any of these treatments? (Diehard acupuncture devotee over here.) Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

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