During the 2016 Summer Olympic competition in Rio, Brazil, there was a picture of the US Men’s swimmer Michael Phelps circulating. What made this picture so special was that he had these bruised looking circles on his shoulders. When interviewed and asked what these circles were, he stated that he had gotten ‘cupping therapy’. There are also many pictures of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Bieber, and Samuel L. Jackson, to name a few, that had these ‘cupping circles’ on along their upper backs and abdominal region. Since then many athletes from different sports utilized this therapy to help them recover efficiently and to improve their athletic performance. So what is ‘cupping’ and how can it help you?
Cupping is a traditional therapy that originated in China where glass, plastic, or even bamboo cups are used to create a vacuum suction on the skin. The purpose is to pull and loosen the skin and the muscles. Originally it was commonly used on people who had suffered from the common cold or the flu with the cups placed on the upper back, to release ‘pathogens’ and clear out the lungs. The common method used to eliminate these ‘pathogens’ was to pierce the skin with a lancet or thick needle to let the blood out on the upper back. After some dripping of the blood, cupping was then applied to drain it. This is known as ‘wet cupping’- the ‘wet’, in this case, referring to blood. When there is no blood being drawn out, it is then referred to as ‘dry cupping’.
As time went by, cupping therapy was used to treat other physical ailments such as inflammation of the body, muscle aches and soreness, facial paralysis, digestive disorders, and many more. The techniques along with the equipments have changed too. Originally, cups of bamboo and then glass were used and, in order to create the vacuum effect, the cups were lit with fire and immediately applied to the skin. Nowadays, you will commonly see practitioners using plastic cups and a ‘vacuum’ pump. Are there any significant differences in the types of cups and the methods being used? No, not really. The important thing to remember is that they should all create a comfortable vacuum suction.
So how does ‘cupping’ work. Simply put, the vacuum suction creates a pull and releases the deep fascia of the muscle. For a more detailed explanation, please click on this link and read my blog about fascia. Simply put, the deep fascia of the muscle is the covering of any muscle. If this covering is tight, the muscles become tight. If the covering is loose, the muscle becomes loose enough where proper blood, lymph, and nerve circulations occur. The cupping technique pulls the skin and the deep fascia to help loosen the muscle. Once this occurs, pain or soreness is lessened and the person can then move more freely after the completion of the treatment. To a competitive athlete, better movement equals better performance!
While one can just get cupping only, and it can help them, I personally do not think that is the best way. The reason for this is that without the piercing of the skin and the deep fascia, it would take a lot of pressure along with increased time to loosen up any tight muscles. This can cause some discomfort, possible increase in pain, and, to some, leave an unpleasant experience overall.
‘Wet cupping’, described earlier, can be an option but I also do not think that is a viable option. For one, the piercing of the needles can be painful experience since blood needs to be drained. Also, many patients worry about possible blood infections or contamination since blood is being drawn. From a practitioner’s point, it’s big hassle to perform and clean up any blood.
However, there is a treatment method that works very well with cupping. That treatment is acupuncture. Needles are incorporated but they are not thick enough to draw blood. Often the procedure is painless and it does pierce the skin deep into the muscle layer to loosen the fascia. Added to this the applied pressure on the cups do not have to be strong. Again due to the muscle fascia being released by acupuncture, a comfortable amount of cupping suction can have a better and more immediate result!
Typical cupping treatment should last for 10 to 12 minutes only. Since the cups do pull on the skin and muscle, the blood vessels around that area will break causing a circular, ‘bruised’ appearance. Don’t worry, the damaged blood vessels are not a serious threat to your health. Other than the ugly bruised like appearance, they do not hurt and the marks will disappear within a week. If you have the following conditions, cupping may should be avoided to prevent further injuries to the patient.
- a sunburn
- a wound
- a skin ulcer
- an internal organ disorder
- experienced recent trauma
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