Updated: Apr 14
By Maria Lee Sheng Sun, R.Ac, R.TCMP
Cupping became more popular when the world watched U.S. Olympic Swimmer Michael Phelps and U.S. gymnast Alex Naddour, compete with red circular marks across their back and shoulders. Both Phelps and Naddour believe that cupping treatment provided them with an athletic edge. Belarus swimmer Pavel Sankovich wrote on his Instagram account: “Cupping is a great recovery tool."
So, What is cupping Therapy?
Cupping is one aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is frequently used after acupuncture or plum blossom treatment. It is an ancient Chinese therapy in which a cup is applied to the skin and the pressure in the cup is reduced (either by heat or suction) in order to draw and hold skin and superficial muscles inside the cup. Sometimes, while the suction is active, the cup is moved, causing the skin and muscle to be pulled. This is called gliding cupping.
Cupping is applied to certain acupuncture points as well as to parts of the body that have been affected by pain. Cupping is based on the meridian theory of the body. On the one hand, cupping removes stagnation in the body and opens the meridians so that qi can flow freely. On the other, it also helps to rejuvenate certain meridians and organs that are not functioning at their best.
From a scientific standpoint
Cupping is known to help activate the lymphatic system, promote blood circulation, and is good for deep tissue repair. Cupping helps with microcirculation in the areas where the cups are placed. If there has been an injury or soft tissue restriction in a certain spot, cupping not only improves blood flow to it, but can actually create new blood vessels. It can also help flush out toxins as the excess blood is removed from the area and the body is healing the bruising. It can also dilute inflammatory markers by bringing more blood to the area that has been cupped.
Almost every other kind of soft tissue therapy is compressive. Cupping is distractive and pulls layers of muscle, skin and fascia away from each other as some tissue is sucked up into the cup. This creates micro-trauma that kicks the body’s healing mechanism into high gear. Cupping doesn’t replace other therapeutic work but it can complement it.
Other than improving circulation, what other benefits does cupping have?
Sometimes athletes get a buildup of interstitial fluid that can cause secondary injury to healthy cells in that area. Cupping can help flush this fluid out. If someone has been struggling with pain, cupping can hit a kind of neurological “reset button” that helps reduce pain sensations. The mechanoreceptor stimulation that cupping causes is also believed to trigger the release of pain-blocking neurotransmitters in the brain.
Is cupping a one-size-fits-all method or are there different techniques?
With my patients I use several techniques. If I have concerns over the athlete’s general physiology then I’ll use static-static cupping, in which I’ll place several cups on the patient while they’re still and leave them in place. For an athlete who has a fascial restriction, I’ll lubricate the skin and then perform dynamic-static cupping, in which they’re still but I move the cups around slowly. Finally, if someone is having trouble restoring movement to a motion segment, I’ll try using static cup placement while they’re moving, such as doing Child’s Pose while cups are on their lower back to help a lumbar spine problem.
Will those nasty bruises go away?
Some people’s bruise patterns certainly get pretty colorful. But as the body responds to the micro-trauma, the bruising starts to dissipate. Most athletes find it goes away completely in three to seven days, depending on their individual physiology, general health and other factors. So no, Michael Phelps won’t be scarred for life by cupping!
Cupping is an excellent form of treatment for stiffness or muscular pain in the neck, shoulders, back, calves, and hamstrings. Also, the therapy can limit the inflammation and overall pain in the body. As a result, it will help to enhance physical and mental relaxation, naturally boosting the well-being of any patient.
Cupping therapy is offered by our Registered Acupuncturists (Maria & Andeka), as well as by some our Registered Massage Therapists (Lucas & Jackie).