Cupping: what is it and should I get it?

Ancient Chinese cupping

You may have seen the dark, bruise coloured circles on the backs of the Olympic athletes at the current games in Rio. Many of you may be wondering what they are or have heard from the commentators and media articles about this ‘new’ treatment the athletes are receiving called cupping.

What is cupping and where does it come from?
Cupping is not something new. Early records of cupping have existed since ancient Egypt around 1500 BC. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, prescribed cupping. The Chinese have been using cupping dating back to 281 AD. The British were using cupping by the 1800’s with observation of Hippocrates writings. However, with the rise of scientific medicine, the practice of cupping has declined in the West in the last century, until a recent resurgence from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners practicing here in the West and other physical therapists using it to aid in soft tissue therapies.

The method of cupping uses a cup with vacuum created by a flame, pump or suction applied to the skin. Animal horns, bamboo, hollowed out wood or clay, even shells have been used for cupping practices throughout history. The cups used nowadays are most commonly made from glass, plastic or silicone.

How does it work?
TCM practitioners use cupping to move energy and correct internal imbalances, as well as to clear the effects of external injury and climatic influences such as the cold.1 In myotherapy, remedial massage and other physical therapies the cups are used to stretch the underlying tissues such as muscle and fascia.

What is fascia?
Myers (2014) says that while everyone learns something about bones and muscles, the origin and disposition of the fascinating fascial net that unites them is less widely understood, although that is gradually changing.2

Pith acts like fascia

Connective tissue is an apt description of fascia as its web-like structure binds every cell in the body to it’s neighbour.3 Imagine the pith in a mandarin, how it sticks to each segment and holds the segments to each other, and the skin to the flesh of the fruit. In very basic terms, this is what fascia is like.

It is primarily made up of collagen and keeps our muscles and organs where they should be. It also helps transport proteins and nutrients around the body as well as supporting the circulatory and nervous systems.

‘In short muscle is elastic, fascia is plastic’

Fascia is different to muscle in that, when stretched it won’t easily ‘recoil’ to it’s original form. Stretched quickly, it will tear. Stretched slowly it will warp and deform. In short muscle is elastic, fascia is plastic.4 Over time fascia will however, lay new fibres to rebind. This is what western, or modern, cupping aims to facilitate This is called myofascial release. Myofascial release can be achieved manually, with a slow, deliberate massage technique, heat and compression but the suction of the cups lifts and separates the muscle fibres and surrounding connective tissue in a way that cannot be achieved manually. It also increases the blood flow around the restricted muscle to help restore its function.

Australian TCM practitioner and modern cupping pioneer, Bruce Bentley says “Judging from what we can see and feel, we can suppose that the various layers of the skin and the fat beneath are drawn inside the cup, together with a positive tension exerted on the underlying fascia”. He goes on to say “we can presume therefore that the suction effect and the drawing out and elevation of these tissues facilitates an increase of local blood supply to the immediate area, which in turn implies an enhanced metabolic uptake of oxygen and feed of nutrients to those parts. It therefore relaxes and reduces pain [caused by] congestion and contracture”.5

Cupping works fast, with minimal pain to re-knit the connective tissues with a ‘trickle down’ effect to underlying muscle tissues, circulatory and nervous systems and perhaps even organs.

But what are those ‘bruises’?
Bruce Bentley maintains that a cupping mark is not bruising but the physical outcome of pathogens, toxins, blockages and impurities (waste products) that are an undesirable presence in the body.6

MediNet defines a bruise as an injury of the soft tissues that results in breakage of the local capillaries and leakage of red blood cells. In the skin it can be seen as a reddish-purple discoloration that does not blanch when pressed. When a bruise fades, it becomes green and brown, as the body metabolizes the blood cells in the skin. It is best treated with local application of a cold pack immediately after injury.7

However, when tested, the composition of the dark pigmentation left from cupping was found to be ‘old blood’, stagnant blood in the tight muscle fibres.8 Blood that is not moving, the more it thickens, congeals and darkens. TCM also recognises the different colours, shape, temperature and texture of the marks as a diagnostic tool to signify varying pathogens or deficiencies within the body.

Rest assured the marks left by cups are painless, they do not feel like bruising and fade within a few days to a few weeks, depending on how dark they are. I also have observed that clients who have regular cupping tend to mark less and less.

What is the difference between the different types of cups?

L to R: plastic pump cups, silicone cups, glass cups with aspirator suction pump, plastic suction pump with magnets, glass

There are many and varied types of cups. Glass, plastic suction pump, rubber, silicone, glass with a vacuum pump, plastic with a vacuum pump and magnets. The most common used by physical therapists are the glass, plastic suction pump or the silicone cups.

The glass cups are considered the traditional cups, largely used by TCM practitioners. They are used by some physical therapists too. The vacuum is created by placing a fueled flame, usually a cotton wool ball doused in methylated spirits, into the cup for a second or two. The flame is removed and the cup is quickly placed on the oiled skin. The heated air in the cup then cools to create the suction, the oil on the skin acts as the seal to the vacuum.

Flame to create vacuum in cup

It does not feel hot on the skin. Often clients expect it to feel warm and are surprised that the glass is cool. The wide lips on the glass cups feel smooth on the skin. Depending on how much suction is created, the cup can be left where it’s placed, or moved around to massage with. The suction with the glass cups is often strong and tends to leave strong marks, like the ones you might have seen on Michael Phelps at the Olympics.

There is no exact way of measuring the suction on these cups and it takes some experience before a practitioner can judge the amount of suction the flame will create.

Plastic pump cups are often used by myotherapists and some massage therapists. They are fast and easy to use as there is no need for a flame and the amount of suction is easily controlled via the pump. They can be used static or moved to massage with also. They tend not to mark as much as the glass cups but can leave a slight pinkish circle where the cup is placed or a strip where the cup is moved.

Silicone cups are becoming more and more popular among massage therapists and other physical therapists due to their ease of use, durability and gentleness on the client. Suction is created by squeezing the cup and placed on the skin. Suction can be created without oil but seals better with a little bit of lubricant and the cups can be massaged with. This technique is especially good for myofascial release. These cups are not as strong as the glass or plastic pump cups, and therefore leave very little marking on the skin.

What are the contraindications of cupping?
The cupping contraindications are similar to that of massage. Cupping cannot be performed on skin that is broken, has acne, rash or other contagious skin disease. Cupping on pregnant women should be considered with caution, not to the soft tissue areas of the abdomen or lower back. Although I have seen good results on the sore hips of pregnant clients. Cupping shouldn’t be performed on existing bruising as it can be uncomfortable, although I have experimented on myself with the silicone cups to see if it move the bruising out quicker, which it did quite successfully I might say.

Are there other types of cupping?
Facial cupping for skin rejuvenation, headache, sinus and TMJ disorder relief; cupping to reduce stretch marks, scarring and cellulite all exist.

Wet cupping or Hijama, is an Arabic tradition. It is where an incision is made on the skin and the cup is placed over the incision to draw the blood out for therapeutic purposes. This practice is not used by physical therapists and has a risk of infection.

If you are considering myotherapy or massage for a chronic injury or muscular tension, consider trying some cupping with your physical therapy. It is a fast and effective way to mend soft tissue and alleviate muscular pain.

 


  1. Bently, B., Cupping, viewed 11th of August, 2016 <http://www.healthtraditions.com.au/course-details/cupping.htm>
  2. Myers, T 2014, Anatomy Trains – Myofascial Meridians for Manual & Movement Therapists, Elsevier Health Sciences, London
  3. Myers, T 2014, Anatomy Trains – Myofascial Meridians for Manual & Movement Therapists, Elsevier Health Sciences, London
  4. Myers, T 2014, Anatomy Trains – Myofascial Meridians for Manual & Movement Therapists, Elsevier Health Sciences, London
  5. Bentley, B., ‘Modern Cupping’, The Lantern Vol 10-3, pp.15
  6. Bentley, B., ‘A Cupping Mark is Not a Bruise’, The Lantern Vol 12-2, pp.16
  7.  Definition of a Bruise, viewed 11th of August, 2016 <http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=2541>
  8. Bentley, B., ‘A Cupping Mark is Not a Bruise’, The Lantern Vol 12-2, pp.16

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