“Have you seen Michael Phelps?” “What are those marks?” “Have you ever heard of cupping therapy?” I have been asked these questions a lot since the Olympics started August 5th. My favorite are my patients who come in and say, “You did that to me!”
What is cupping therapy?
Cupping is a modality utilized in Chinese Medicine. It has roots in Shamanistic medicine. It has been used in Africa, Asia, North and South America, Australia, and Europe in one form or another. We know it to be at least as old as acupuncture, but it could be much older.
There are two categories of cupping: Wet cupping and Dry cupping. Wet cupping refers to the practice of causing bleeding and then putting a cup over the area to draw out blood. This is a tradition that has been used worldwide. It is used often by Islamic practitioners, both for health and religious reasons. We are going to discuss the application of Dry cupping in this article.
Originally a hollow horn was used. The healer would put the horn against the patient’s skin and suck on the end to create the suction. They would fill the hole with grass or mud they held in their mouth to hold the vacuum. It was originally used to pull obvious toxins from the body, like a boil or poison.
At some point, Chinese practitioners discovered they could make cups from bamboo that when boiled would create a vacuum against the skin as they cooled. This was more efficient and frankly, more hygienic. This also allowed Chinese physicians to administer herbs directly to the area by boiling the cups with specific herbs for healing. As technology grew, cupping changed. It evolved from animal horns to bamboo, to clay, to glass, and now plastic and silicone cups are used.
There are several ways to create the vacuum that causes the cups to stay on the skin. Heat can be applied by boiling the cups, fire can be placed inside the cup to burn out the oxygen inside, plastic cups have a valve that a suction “gun” can be used to suck the air out of the cup, silicone cups are pressed into place, forcing the air out.
How does it work?
Cupping therapy produces a negative pressure field around a localized place on the body. This negative pressure pulls the skin up, pulls muscles away from bones and lifts and separates muscle fibers allowing blood to flow into sore and tired muscles. Toxins, including lactic acid, are also flushed out of the muscles. This allows muscles to relax and heal faster. Cupping taxes a tight muscle, so that it has to release. It’s the same reason a massage therapist or acupuncturist will put pressure on a trigger point in a muscle until it releases. Cupping is easier on the practitioner’s body and also on the patient.
Stationary cupping will pull toxins from deep in the tissues to the surface of the skin so your body can flush them out. This will sometimes leave marks and discoloration on your skin. These marks are often misnamed bruises. I say misnamed, because a bruise is caused when a blood vessel breaks, the marks left by cupping are actually caused by waste materials coming to the surface. These waste materials are often toxins, but can also be old “stagnant” blood that has pooled in or under the muscle fibers, often caused by an injury, old or new. These can cause the muscles to be stuck together like they are glued.
In the case of a very tight, or stuck area, such as a muscle that has adhesed or has a lot of scar tissue, I will often use what is called Running Cupping. Running Cupping involves the use of oil or liniment to wet the skin before the cup is applied. I use oil and liniment in my practice. Once the cup is attached to the skin, the cup is moved in a sliding motion. For the person receiving running cupping, it feels like a deep tissue massage. Because it also utilizes negative pressure with the suction of the cups it is doing much more for them. Again, cupping lifts and separates the muscle fibers. It lifts them away from the bone, breaks up adhesions and scar tissue and allows much needed blood and nourishment into the muscles while pulling toxins and waste material out. Running cupping helps move lymph and other fluids too.
So, why are the Olympic athletes doing this?
Cupping therapy can be very effective in healing an acute, or recent, injury. In the acute stages of an injury, the blood vessels dilate, allowing an increase in blood flow through the area. This is what causes the initial swelling.
When we are injured, our brain sends a “healing cascade”, called an inflammatory response, flooding into the area of injury. This cascade will include white blood cells to take care of foreign invaders: they prevent infection; platelets which will create the initial clot to close any tears or openings; fibroblasts, which will provide the structure to repair and heal any damage; and red blood cells to provide the nutrients and oxygen to help the rest of the cascade to do its job.
While acute inflammation is a completely normal and necessary response to an injury, it can slow down an athlete. It can take your body several days to move the extra fluid and cell debris out of the area of injury and remain swollen, red and sore until it does. Cupping can help speed up this process.
In a more chronic inflammation situation, when the fluid is not clearing on its own, or tightness prevents the blood flow from clearing the fluid and debris, cupping therapy can help loosen up the muscles and bring increased blood flow through, allowing your body to heal.
Cupping has been around for millennia. I guarantee the teams from Asian countries have been using this therapy at the Olympics for many years. It’s great to see the American team utilizing this ancient medicine with such amazing results!
It is important to find a qualified practitioner if you want to try cupping for yourself. Acupuncturists are trained as part of our degree in cupping. Many Massage Therapists have taken courses as well. For help determining if cupping might be for you, contact us at 406-690-0849.