Cupping Therapy, Hormones and Neurotransmitters
Cupping therapy is an ancient, therapeutic healing technique with a wide variety of medical applications. This traditional Chinese remedy has more recently been adopted in the West as a complementary, alternative treatment for a range of conditions including chronic pain, digestive complaints and skin disorders.
Cupping is a form of massage therapy, in that it physically stimulates the skin, the underlying tissues and the nervous system. This triggers the release of hormones and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endogenous opioids. These signaling molecules can have a wide range of therapeutic benefits including a reduction in stress, depression, anxiety and pain. For people with chronic mood disorders or diseases, this can significantly improve quality of life through the dual action of alleviating physical symptoms and improving mental wellbeing.
What is massage cupping therapy?
Massage cupping therapy is a form of cupping in which the cups (and suction) are applied to the skin before being moved up and down along problem areas. The physical motion of the treatment stimulates the underlying tissues and nervous system in the same way as a regular massage. This promotes the release of a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters, with a wide range of therapeutic benefits for the patient.
Cupping Massage Therapy and Serotonin
Despite its reputation as the ‘happy hormone,’ serotonin is more commonly thought to be a neurotransmitter (that is, a chemical that transmits signals between nerves). It plays an important role in regulating a vast array of biological processes including mood, cardiovascular and digestive function, cognition and pain.
As such, serotonin is an important therapeutic agent for addressing a range of chronic psychiatric and medical conditions. As a key part of the body’s natural pain-relief mechanism, serotonin has the power to raise pain threshold and provide relief to patients suffering from symptoms of pain. As such, serotonin is commonly used in the pharmacological management of migraine headaches, thanks to its ability to provide pain relief. Elevated serotonin levels have also been associated with reduced levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and depression.
Studies have found that massage therapy increases levels of serotonin and dopamine and may be released in response to stimulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Therefore, moving cupping therapy has the potential to do the same and may relieve symptoms of pain, stress, anxiety and depression as a result.
Cupping Massage Therapy and Oxytocin
Massage therapy stimulates the release of oxytocin, a peptide hormone popularly referred to as the ‘love hormone.’ Oxytocin is released in response to skin stimulation (i.e. touch), and plays a key role in human bonding and social behaviour. This hormone is responsible for regulating many aspects of human behaviour and health, and boosting your levels of oxytocin can have a wide variety of beneficial, therapeutic effects.
In fact, elevated levels of oxytocin have been linked to stress reduction, good health and general wellbeing. It has the potential to decrease symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, and may also reduce sensitivity to pain. Studies have found that oxytocin can provide pain relief in patients with lower back pain, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and cancer.
Oxytocin also influences the release of dopamine, another neurotransmitter with an array of health benefits.
Cupping Massage Therapy and Dopamine
Dopamine is an active neurotransmitter, your levels of which can also be increased by massage cupping therapy. Dopamine manages many of your body’s behavioral and physical processes and is an important regulator of mood, sleep, kidney and heart function, and pain processing.
Boosted dopamine levels have been associated with a reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress, and have been found to effectively relieve prenatal depression and stress in pregnant women. Dopamine is also an important part of the body’s pain processing system, and has been shown to effectively manage painful symptoms in patient with Parkinson’s disease. This same study found that dopamine may also improve mood and sleep disorders, which also has therapeutic benefits in improving patient’s overall quality of life.
Cupping Massage Therapy and Endogenous Opioids
Endogenous opioids play a vital role in the body’s innate pain-relief system. They act as neurotransmitters and bind to opioid receptors throughout the central nervous system (CNS), where they have an analgesic effect that reduce painful sensations.
Wet cupping therapy (in which incisions are made in the skin prior to the placement of cups to allow bloodletting) has been found to increase the release of endogenous opioids. This was shown to effectively reduce pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the joints.
Endogenous opioids may also help to reduce stress and induce euphoria which can, in turn, alleviate the mood disorders commonly associated with chronic, painful conditions. By reducing stress and depression and improving overall mood, elevated levels of endogenous opioids have the potential to increase wellbeing and quality of life.
The mechanisms behind the therapeutic benefits of cupping therapy are, generally, poorly understood. However, there is significant evidence to suggest that the physical mechanisms of massage therapy stimulate the release of a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters in the body. Levels of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endogenous opioids can all be increased by massage cupping therapy, and all have the potential to alleviate the symptoms of a wide range of mental and physical conditions.
When it comes to treating pain, all four can be of use. Serotonin and endogenous opioids in particular play key roles in the body’s natural anti-pain mechanisms, and dopamine and oxytocin have also been found to have a therapeutic effect. These hormones and neurotransmitters can also alleviate the symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety, and all have been linked to improvements in mood disorders.
These effects mean that cupping could be a highly suitable alternative therapy for people with rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and a variety of other physical and psychiatric conditions. Massage cupping therapy has the power to release pain relieving substances within the body that can enhance mood, reduce symptoms and improve overall quality of life in those who use the treatment.
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