Cupping therapy, although part of ancient Chinese medicine, was thrust into the limelight during the Rio Olympics. Although many of the athletes were being treated with cups, the American swimmers came out with circular red and purple marks which were visible on their skin. The announcers were obsessed with pointing out what the marks were and trying to explain the benefits of such treatment. New stories popped up on the internet claiming cupping was “pseudoscience”, “superstition”, and just the “latest fad” with pictures showing horrific burns. So what gives?
Let’s start by talking about what cupping therapy is. Cupping therapy involves placing a cup, which can be made out of different material ranging from plastic to glass. The general premise involves placing negative pressure under the cup forming suction. This can be achieved again through various means, but the most common is by a pump or by heating up the cup with fire just before placing on the skin. Although lighting something on fire is definitely more dramatic than adding a couple pulls to a plastic pump, I just don’t see the additional benefit of risking catching the clinic on fire, so I choose the plastic pump. Next, just as needling can be termed wet (with medication) or dry (without medication), cupping can be termed wet or dry. Wet cupping involves a form of bloodletting (cutting the skin and applying suction over the wound to suck out the bad, stagnant blood)-WHAT!?!? Umm no, no, no. Don’t get me wrong, if it works for you, great, but for some reason the “do no harm” vow that we take as medical professionals somehow feels broken when you slice open your patient just to watch them bleed. So let’s move on the the type of cupping that I perform, the dry version.
Dry cupping again does NOT involve bleeding as a primary goal. The suction under the cup is thought to have many benefits, including: stretching tissue and fascia, increasing circulation and healing, and reducing pain just to name a few. The main reason I use cupping is for the stretching tissue effect, think of it like a deep tissue massage with much less time and effort. Where massage attempts to push through the layers to stretch the body, lengthening the tissue similar to rolling out dough with a roller, cupping pulls the tissue upward into the cup taking out the slack and providing a stretch (see pic above). The range of motion and flexibility gains after a simple treatment of cupping can be immediate and quite noticeable. Cupping techniques can vary according to the goal of treatment, but can involve simply placing the cups on the body and removing, moving the cups around once they are in place, or performing movements with your body while the cups are in place.
So about the marks that the cups leave. They look like absolute torture right? So what does cupping feel like and how about those marks after treatment? When the cups are in place, think of an intense/effective stretch in the area targeted and then once the cups are removed, you tend to feel an immediate improvement in ease of movement and range of motion. The marks produced following may be a little sore to push on, but generally are not painful. They actually look much worse than they feel, with the patient not realizing they are even there after the treatment unless viewed. So prior to cupping, make sure you aren’t attending a wedding in a strapless dress and getting your neck/shoulders cupped!
So why should I come to have cupping treatments performed with you instead of purchasing the $30 kits off Amazon and performing myself? First, when cupping is performed without training, serious bodily harm can occur if performed incorrectly! Also, just as with many other treatments, cupping is part of an overall treatment plan. Are the results permanent alone, probably not. After starting with a proper assessment, cupping can be combined with dry needling, stretching, or strengthening activities to target not only the symptom but the source. This is how you see results come your way. Do I have you interested……
Ryan Goodman is owner of Goodman Performance Therapy LLC and the Team Physical Therapist for the Columbus Blue Jackets with experience in Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Injuries.