When gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps showed up at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with what looked like big, reddish-purple polka dots on his body, people could not help but notice. Phelps explained the circular-shaped bruises were the result of cupping, a form of alternative therapy with ancient roots. Cupping has become very popular since then, but what exactly is it?
“Massage cupping is a unique technique that uses suction cups made from rubber, plastic or glass,” says Kaijah Bjorklund, a massage therapist at Wellspring Centre for Body Balance in Ashland. “The cups are applied to an area and allowed to sit in a specific spot, and they can be moved across the surface of the skin. Most massage techniques use downward pressure or compression on the body. Cupping uses negative pressure to help loosen and lift connective tissue, or fascia, allowing tissue layers that have become stuck together to release.”
Bjorklund notes that cupping increases blood and lymph flow to an area, allowing a release of stagnation and inflammation, which can reduce pain and calm the nervous system.
Liz Amuchastegui, a physical therapist at Jackson County Physical Therapy in Medford, uses cupping to increase circulation and break down excess scar tissue. “When appropriate, we use cupping as an agent to improve muscle circulation and release muscle knots,” she says. “I find it to be very useful as a tool to reduce scar tissue buildup after surgery and to release deep scar tissue that is hard to reach by hand.”
According to both experts, the vacuum pressure leaves behind marks because of the increase in circulation along with negative pressure. This superficial bruising will last from a few hours to a few days depending on the type of cup used, amount of pressure in the cup and the amount of time the cup is left in place.
“As for how it feels, it is hard to describe,” says Amuchastegui. “It feels like putting the end of a vacuum tube on your thigh. There is a pressure sensation and a lifting/stretching sensation. When deep scar tissue has formed, some stinging or burning can be felt as it is released. When applied over trigger points, or muscle knots, a dull, deep ache can be felt as the knots are worked on, similar to deep-tissue massage.”
Bjorklund says that though there is sensation caused by the cupping, it’s not painful. “Massage cupping is relatively gentle, while being able to affect deep layers of muscle, circulation and connective tissue,” she says. “Cupping is one of the many tools in my toolbox for treatment. I use it in specific cases. I recommend massage for people who would like to experience reduced stress, maintain flexibility, increase athletic performance, manage chronic pain, reduce the likelihood of chronic pain, recover from injury, enhance immunity and improve sleep. Depending on the person and their needs, massage cupping may be included in their treatment plan.”
As with any medical technique, cupping requires the proper training.
“The tools we use are not difficult to use; simply apply to the skin and pull the handle of the pump to add the vacuum effect,” says Amuchastegui. “However, it does require training to know how to safely apply the correct amount of pressure for the intended purpose at a given body part.”