Updated Aug 4, 2018
HIGHLAND — I had no frame of reference for what was happening. I was lying face down, on a massage table, shirtless.
"Does it hurt?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah, it's terrible," acupuncturist Tim Schlank said, sarcastically.
I heard the woosh of a flame igniting, and experienced what felt like a hot, solid, suction cup being stuck to my back.
"The flame is a little scary," said Times photographer, Tony Martin. "Good thing you didn't see it."
I was trying cupping, an ancient alternative medicine technique that is said to help relieve muscle tension and boost blood circulation. More recently, it's been popularized by athletes and celebrities such as Michael Phelps and Gwyneth Paltrow.
"How does it feel?" Schlank asked.
"Very suctionary," I said. "In a good way."
As he explained it, the cups were pulling up the blood and other "junk" that wasn't circulating, deep in my back, essentially detoxifying and bringing fresh blood to my muscles.
After about five minutes, Schlank popped the eight or so glass cups off my back — POP! — and I felt a prickling sensation with each one.
"How do you feel?" he said.
"It stings a little bit," I said. "It's hard to say, maybe I feel a little more loose."
I'm not alone in Northwest Indiana in getting "cupped." Acupuncturists, athletic trainers and massage therapists across the Region are offering it, and some local say residents say they're getting results.
Nationally, however, some medical experts have questioned the effectiveness of cupping, noting there have been no large clinical trials of the practice, and thus wonder whether the pain and bruising — and money — are worth it (a cupping session can cost anywhere from $20 to $80).
Cupping practitioners also don't have to be certified in Indiana, and the quality of training is varied.
But Mike Regnier, of Dyer, says he believes it's helped improve his circulation and lessen pain in his body."The process is pretty much relatively pain free, but the pressure of the cups can get a little intense at times," the 45-year-old said, noting that he also looks like a giraffe, with purple spots on his body, for about a week and a half afterward.
Jenna Lis, a 16-year-old high-school basketball player from Hobart, says she has used cupping to relieve an ankle sprain and tight muscles. She said she used to utilize a foam roller, but says, of cupping: "I think it's more effective."
Audric Warren, an athletic trainer and owner of Effort: Performance & Rehabilitation in Dyer, uses cupping in conjunction with other treatment methods in to help athletes recover from one game and prepare for the next. He said it has added range of motion and decreased pain among his clients.
He compares cupping to the filtration system in a fish tank. The practice clears out the "cloudy water" in the lymphatic system — muscles tight from overuse, sitting too much, poor diet — and cleans up the lymphatic system.
"Now the body can heal better, because it can move better," he said. "Our body is designed to move. Essentially the better we move, the better we heal, the better we can perform in our daily activities as well as competition."
Warren suggested Taylor Menke, a 17-year-old Andrean High School student, try cupping last year after she was sore from the traveling softball season.
"I just went in and asked what he could do to help me, and he did that and it helped so much," she said.
She cups about every two months, whenever her muscles are tight, and says it's more effective than other techniques she's tried, like resting or icing.
Lori Glines, a massage therapist and esthetician at C.J. Warren Salon & Spa in Crown Point, pairs cupping with massage to help clients with everything from muscle recovery to stress to asthma. She says she wouldn't do it on someone with bulging discs and open adhesions, and knows areas to avoid, such as varicose veins.
"By placing the cups on a certain area, the skin, the fascia will come up," she said. "Instead of creating that pressure that we push with (during massage), you can get much deeper by bringing up the area that has stagnation in the blood, stagnation in the tissue."
Rebecca Sasak, an acupuncturist with Thrive Center for Integration and Healing in Chesterton, says cupping is an "old-world technique" that's been a home remedy in places such as Greece, Mexico and South America for hundreds of years: The wife would often do it on the husband's back after a long day of work.
She said wherever there's not blood flow there's "disharmony and pathology" — inflammation, disease — and cupping brings circulation back to spots where it's been lagging, such as connective tissues. She said cupping restores "chi," the Chinese term for the body's life force energy.
"Cupping therapy is really the quickest way to reactivate fresh blood flow and stimulate the body's own healing," she said.
Martin, the Times photographer, later told me what the process looks like: Schlank lit an alcohol-soaked cotton ball on fire, and with a set of tongs, circulated it inside a glass bowl, which resembles a bell or flower pot, and slapped it on my back. Seconds later, my skin rose into the cup about an inch high.
As for how it worked for me, in the days after the cupping, coupled with an acupuncture session by Schlank, some chronic pain in my back and shoulder seemed to have lessened. With any health treatment, though, it's hard to know how much the placebo effect plays a role.
I didn't feel any side effects from the cupping. I'd even forgotten I had it done until someone at the pool one day asked me what the circular bruises were on my back.
"I cupped," I said.