We’ve all seen those big, circular bruise-like marks across the back of competitive swimmer Michael Phelps. Suddenly, everyone is curious about this new treatment called “cupping” that supposedly helps improve athletic performance. The truth is that there's nothing new about cupping.
Cupping therapy, or “fire cupping," has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Licensed acupuncturists in the US are trained in traditional cupping therapy and use it in practice daily.
What is cupping?
The original cups used in cupping were likely made of bamboo or hollow bone. Today, glass cups are the most common. The cups come in various sizes, and have a smooth lip that contacts the skin. The traditional cupping technique involves using fire or heat inside the cup prior to placement on the skin to create suction. The glass cup is then suctioned onto the skin, and can be left in place for a period of time over an acupuncture point (called “stationary cupping”), or moved back and forth along the skin surface after oil is applied (called “running cupping”). Today, many practitioners use cups with a one-way valve and pump so that suction can be created without fire.
What does cupping do?
In traditional Chinese medicine, cupping was used to treat boils, infections and chronic cough. Over the years, writings on Chinese medicine reported that cupping was useful for arthritic conditions, asthma, the common cold, cough, indigestion and some skin conditions. Today, licensed acupuncturists are taught cupping techniques with the intent to move stagnant blood and qi (pronounced “chee,” roughly translating to “energy”) through different parts of the body.
Anatomically, cupping creates a pulling motion on the tissues being treated. This pulling lifts the skin and fascia away from the underlying muscles and structures. Fascia is an interconnected web of connective tissue that should move smoothly over the muscles. With chronic injury or inflammation, fascia can become stiff or even stuck in certain positions, creating limitations in range of motion, poor alignment and pain.
Cupping, especially running cupping, can loosen tightened fascia to alleviate pain and increase range of motion. Due to increased blood flow to the area being cupped, lactic acid and other inflammatory cells may be flushed out of fatigued muscles more quickly, enhancing recovery.
What does cupping feel like?
Most patients enjoy the sensation of cupping. Running cupping can feel like a deep tissue massage, although the effects on the tissue are that of lifting, not compression. Occasionally a pinching sensation can be felt if the cups are on too tight. There is almost always a sensation of relief after cupping if the patient felt tightness or tension in their muscles before treatment. Often, patients report improved mobility and less pain in the treated area.
Is cupping safe?
If cupping is performed by a licensed acupuncturist or trained practitioner, cupping is extremely safe. Knowledge of underlying anatomy is important, as is an understanding of the proper level of suction, duration of treatment, special techniques and frequency of sessions.
Many recent articles have mentioned sports trainers or athletes performing cupping on each other or on themselves. It's likely these treatments have been simplified to involve applying cups to a problem area or pressure point. In these cases, precautions must be taken so as not create suction so tight that blisters form. While self-treatment may provide local benefits to the underlying fascia, this type of cupping may not be as effective as it would if performed by someone with the knowledge of the underlying acupuncture points, special techniques tailored to an individual’s concern, or whether a stationary or running technique would be more beneficial.
To experience traditional cupping, find a licensed acupuncturist in your area: www.nccaom.org