by Sam Reichgott, LMT
If you already know about cupping therapy, you don’t need me to conjure images of Michael Phelps at the Rio 2016 Olympics, covered with purple dots. But if you’re new to cupping, the marks on Phelps, other athletes, or Justin Bieber might be all you’ve seen of this ancient therapeutic modality.
Maybe you’re wondering, why would they do that to themselves? How could it be helpful to cover yourself with big hickies? As a massage therapist, I was very curious, so I decided to learn more. I found a board approved course on cupping. The course instructor was Jim Earley (www.jimearleysmassage.com), who traveled with Phelps as his personal massage therapist for several years.
What is Cupping Therapy?
Cupping therapy originated in China, and independently in several ancient cultures (Greek, Native American, and others). In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cupping is associated with the concept of the body’s meridians, or lines of Qi (energy) flow. As I understand it, an energy blockage can cause an excess or lack of Qi at various points, resulting in illness or pain. These are the same lines and points used in acupuncture, and cupping is another way to restore the healthy flow of Qi.
If none of that makes sense to you, don’t feel alone. I’m right there with you! As a western science guy, even if it’s all real, I feel inauthentic talking about Qi and meridians. But people claim to experience pain relief and improved range of motion from cupping, so what could be going on there?
During cupping, the therapist applies a cup to the affected point, and creates a vacuum within the cup, drawing the skin up into the cup. If you leave the cup still (Static Cupping), a purple mark will appear in a few minutes, and will last from a few days to two weeks. You can also use a lighter vacuum, and slide the cup over the skin (Slide Cupping), which produces only a temporary redness on the treated area, but no lasting mark.
Cupping as Massage Therapy
When I do massage, I apply external pressure, and produce a temporary deformation of the tissue, skin and muscles. Some massage techniques cause a local increase in blood flow, and may produce short term redness on the skin.
When I look at cupping, I see kind of a “reverse massage” going on. Instead of applying external pressure to deform the tissue, the therapist applies a vacuum. Instead of the skin and muscles being pushed down, they’re being pulled up. My experience as a massage therapist leads me to believe that you can get similar results from massage and cupping, coming from opposite directions.
In addition, the vacuum pulls blood from local capillaries faster than it can be returned in the veins, which produces the marks. When it’s done right, these marks aren’t considered bruises, because the blood vessels aren’t being damaged. Cupping proponents say that this “extravasation” removes “stagnant blood” from the area, and brings fresh, healing blood. Science guy says, “I’m not so sure about that stagnant blood thing.” For me, the marks are just a signal, time to remove the cup!
And in case you’re wondering, it looks A LOT worse than it feels. You might feel a little pinch, but if it’s done properly, cupping doesn’t hurt. And I personally felt a HUGE relief from previous muscle pain when the cups were removed. I can definitely see the “reverse massage” effect as helpful.
But Is Cupping Safe?
Cupping is safe, if done properly. In particular, you never do cupping anywhere you can feel a pulse, over large blood vessels, on inflamed or ulcerated skin, over wounds or swelling, injection sites, etc. People with various health conditions should not receive cupping; your therapist should be trained and should inquire about your medical history. And you should never repeat cupping on an area until any marks are mostly faded or gone. Ignoring any of these precautions can result in serious injury, so it’s important that you work with a therapist who has proper training.
As for me, I’m always extra cautious when it comes to any massage, so I’ll be using cupping therapy very conservatively. If you’d like to try static cupping, you’ll have to ask, and then I’ll limit its use to very safe, “meaty” areas. As for slide cupping, I can see this being a very useful addition to almost any massage, as it’s very gentle, and it feels awesome! Of course, I’ll check with you before doing anything new (or ancient), and I hope you’ll be open to trying this unique massage modality.
Sam Reichgott is a Pennsylvania Licensed Massage Therapist (MSG009661), and owner of Rockin’ Good Health, LLC Therapeutic Massage, in downtown Bethlehem, PA.