Cupping In The Modern Context
You’ve probably seen the telltale uniform round marks on the backs of amateur and professional athletes that look a little like crop circles. Cupping has received some visibility in the media recently as celebrities and athletes share their engagement with Chinese Medicine. Cupping is a form of therapy that has been used for thousands of years across several cultures. We now see physical therapists and massage practitioners adopting it into their toolkits.
Cupping is a common modality you might see used next to an acupuncture treatment or on its own. If it’s your first time being pulled into the experience, it’s probably unlike any sensation you’ve felt in the past. Opposite to the inward direction of a massage; the skin, connective tissues and muscles are pulled outwards and stretched with varying degrees of pressure. This motion increases blood and lymphatic circulation as well as it stretches fascia and muscle.
Is Cupping Painful?
Cupping is an entirely comfortable modality when it is administered in an appropriate way next to the client. Why the dark bruises, you ask? Most often the dark round marks you’ll see in the media are on professional athletes who are resilient and are undergoing a strong course of treatment. During treatment, if cupping marks appear quickly, that’s an indication of stagnation (or lack of good quality circulation in the area). One explanation I share with clients is that the micro circulation in our tiniest blood vessels (the capillaries), is not at its greatest when surrounding tissues are tight and congested. In these circumstances, the surrounding tissues don’t receive the best supply of blood but when we cause those small blood vessels to break (causing the bruising), we force new blood into the area.
All that being said, an aggressive treatment that causes marking isn’t always the goal. Sometime a gentler approach is required to accommodate the comfort of the client or may be more appropriate for a client’s particular condition.
Various Styles of Cupping
Typically, most practitioners you’ll find use stationary cupping (cups are placed in an area and left there for the duration of the treatment) to treat musculoskeletal pain. More sophisticated forms of Chinese cupping therapy can target internal organ, PMS symptoms and respiratory disease. Working with nervous system disorders affecting the face such as Bell’s Palsy or stroke, cups are reapplied multiple times in brief intervals on the patient’s face.
In this video, you’ll notice additional stretching offered through movement of the cups along the back. This gentle and relaxing method provides additional feedback to the recipient’s nervous system through the movement of the cups reinforcing the therapeutic effect.
How Does Cupping Work?
Several theories around the mechanism of action for cupping exist from existing research. Some of the more popular ideas include:
- Similarly to how acupuncture works; through stimulating production of the body’s pain relieving system of opioids generated in the body.
- Increasing blood circulation and supporting the exchange of gases and wastes.
- Through the stimulation of the rest and digestion portion of the nervous system, allowing tight muscles to relax as a result.
- By loosening scarring in muscles and connective tissue.
- Through the draining of excess fluids in tissue by stimulating the lymphatic system.