What Is Cupping?

The successes of several Olympic athletes, have recently made Cupping Therapy the hottest new therapy trend among athletes. While it is currently spending a lot of time in the limelight, cupping therapy has actually been around since about 3000 BC. The Egyptians wrote about it in the Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC), which is considered to be one of the oldest medical textbooks of the Western world. In Greece, Hippocrates (400 BC) recommended cupping for internal disease and structural problems. There is even mention in George Orwell's essay, “How The Poor Die,” (1946) where he found it to be practiced in a Paris hospital. Alas, in 2016, this therapy has helped Michael Phelps win a career 23 Olympic gold medals- making him the most decorated Olympian of all time. So what actually happens and how does cupping work?

I generally explain cupping as working opposite of massage therapy. With massage, the therapist uses pressure with their hands to release tension in the muscle fibers and stimulate blood flow to bring fresh nutrients and blood supply to the tissue. This increases tissue pliability, speeds healing and enhances performance (among other things). Cupping provides the same benefits, with a different application method. With cupping, the cups are applied to the skin with a hand held suction pump. The suction raises the tissue within the cup and almost immediately the tissue begins to turn red/pink- indicating an increase in blood flow to the surface of that area. In the case of the Olympic athletes, a stationary approach is used before they compete. Cups are applied to spots around the area desired, and then left in the same position for up to 10 minutes. Cups can also be applied and then moved around the skin in long, gliding motions to have a more broad effect on the tissue. This method works 24 hours before or after a competition... but is not recommended immediately before or after performance. 

In my practice, I use a combination of the two methods, where I initially move the cups to warm the tissue and assess areas where there is increased tension or adhesion. Secondly, I apply stationary cups to those regions, and allow them to release those areas specifically.

After the cups have been suctioned to the tissue for the allotted time- which varies based on the goals, injuries, condition, etc. of the client, the cups are removed. Initially, the skin appears raised and reddish and this discoloration may or may not intensify as time goes on. In the most intense case, the client experiences the dark purplish circles and that will ultimately fade within about a week. While the skin appears discolored, the client may or may not experience bruise-like discomfort and a “tightness” of the skin in the areas where the cups were applied. In my experience, this discomfort appears within 4 hours of treatment and dissipates within 36 hours. As with most therapies, each of our bodies are unique and thus, we may each have a different experience based on activity level, workout regimen, diet, tissue hydration, etc.

So what does the discoloration mean? You may notice with the Olympians, they have some areas of discoloration that are darker in color than others. This indicates that those areas were holding more tension or dehydrated. The suction causes capillaries near the surface of the skin to burst and flood the area with fresh blood supply. This is why healing and recovery increases/enhances with the use of cupping. Adding cupping to your training regimen can provide any athlete the opportunity to take their performance to the next level!

Sarah Eckstein, LMT, is a massage therapist and owner of Sarassage in Woodridge, IL. For more information, please visit www.sarassage.com or contact Sarassage at sarassage@gmail.com.