x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Getting those stresses off your back

Spa talk The ancient practice of cupping, or hijama, is a traditional Arab medicinal technique, perfect for reducing tension in the back, neck and shoulders.

There is nothing more infuriating than an ineffective massage. I have lost count of the number of times I have gone into a beautiful spa, paid over the odds for an aromatherapy treatment and been left with the same stubborn knots lodged in my shoulders. ­Essentially all the therapist did was stroke some ­deliciously scented oils into my skin and ­relieve some mental tension. Fine for a little pampering, but what if you are in real ­discomfort?

The best massage I have ever had was in a small, well-lit room on a university campus when I went to see the resident sports masseuse. She used her fists, elbows and even her knees, and although I came out feeling like I'd done 10 rounds in the boxing ring, my back and neck felt much looser. I moved away and never saw her again. Sadly the same couldn't be said for the knots in my back. So, last week, as the tension in my shoulders reached almost unbearable levels, I booked myself in for a deep tissue massage at a luxurious spa.

I emerged smelling amazing and feeling peaceful, but I knew only too well as I moved my still-knotted shoulders that I'd just received another infuriatingly ineffective massage. It was time for some drastic action. My friend had recommended an ancient treatment called cupping, or hijama in Arabic. The practice, which is mentioned in the Quran, has been compared to the medieval treatment of bloodletting or the Chinese art of fire cupping but it is neither. This is a traditional Arab medicinal technique in which blood is drawn by vacuum from small incisions in the skin and collected in glass or plastic cups.

I admit I didn't exactly jump at the prospect. I am squeamish at the best of times and the sight of my own blood usually makes me cry. However, I did some research and became intrigued. Hijama removes the dead blood cells from the cardiovascular system and stimulates the bone marrow to make fresh ones. In this way it can help rheumatic conditions such as arthritis and sciatica. But I was more interested in the claim that it helps with anxiety and tension and that one session of cupping is worth between 10 and 20 deep tissue massages.

Mohammed, the friendly doctor whom I visited for hijama treatment, said dead blood cells collect between the shoulder blades and at the base of the spine. This was the main reason for increased tension in these areas and a massage only pushes these dead cells around. ­Although this eventually helps them to break down, hijama, he claimed, was a much more ­effective way of relieving the pain. So, a little nervously, I lay down on the bed for my treatment. He placed eight plastic cups in strategic points over my back and used a hand-held vacuum machine to ­create suction. After a few minutes, he removed the cups and made several tiny slices in my skin with a scalpel. It wasn't really painful but decidedly uncomfortable.

Then he replaced the cups and reapplied the suction. It felt like someone was lifting me up by my skin. Over the next 10 minutes viscous fluid began to fill the cups. When it was over, Mohammed showed me the contents of the cups. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. There was a small amount of living or "good" blood, the bright red stuff we are used to seeing if we cut ourselves. Then there was a huge gelatinous lump of slightly darker matter that resembled jelly. This, I was told, was the dead or "bad" blood. It was absolutely ­disgusting and I couldn't believe it had come out of my body.

Having done his work, Mohammed assured me that the results would speak for themselves. He was right. As I left the clinic I felt a spring in my step. I had a burst of renewed energy that everyone I encountered commented on. That night I slept like a log and in the morning the familiar aches and pains in my neck and shoulders had vanished. I was also full of happiness and felt really ­refreshed. A sceptic before I had my treatment, now I will not look back. Hijama, at least for me, is the new massage.

Al Rahma Centre on Hamdan Street, Abu Dhabi, 02 676 7171. @Email:aseaman@thenational.ae