You may have seen the pictures and videos circulating around the internet or maybe you've even been watching the Olympics yourself and have noticed that some of the athletes have some cupping marks.
The most recent being Michael Phelps, while swimming for the gold!
While it's great that this technique is getting some attention, there's also some misinformation out there. The main one being that cupping leaves "bruises". While it can sometimes leave marks, they are not bruises and do not feel like a bruise.
Bruising is caused by impact trauma with the breakage of capillaries and a reactionary rush of fluids to the damaged location from the tissue injury. Cupping doesn't involve compression, but is rather a negative or reverse pressure - a "pulling".
When circulation is sluggish in an injured area, insufficient oxygen gets to the cells. This can cause local build-up of waste products such as dead, static blood, lymph, cellular debris, etc. Cupping can leave marks, which indicates that the stagnation has been moved from the deeper tissue layers to the surface, allowing freshly oxygenated blood to nourish the deeper areas. Any suction device left long enough in one place will loosen and pull these out and up to the skin surface.
It's also important to know there are many different types of cupping. The technique I practice is called Massage Cupping. While I may sometimes leave a cup in a certain area for a couple of minutes, most of my work involves moving the cups - literally massaging with them. I have taken comprehensive continuing education training in this modality and have been certified to practice this technique.
This news clip states that cupping involves placing heated cups on the skin. This isn't entirely true... there is a form of cupping called "fire cupping". (I have also been trained in this technique, but rarely use it.) It isn't placing heated cups on the skin, but rather creating the suction by using fire inside the cup before placing it on the body. The cup is not heated from the fire, it simply creates the suction from the fire having consumed all of the oxygen within the cup. The client will not feel any warmth or heat from the cup with this technique.
Most of the pictures you'll see online of cupping marks are from traditional cupping which is part of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) where the cups are left in one place for long periods of time. TCM focuses on energy lines in the body and movement of chi as well as other things, versus Massage Cupping which focuses on muscle and connective tissue.
There is also something known as "wet cupping" that involves medicinal bleeding. I do not practice this form of cupping.
Most of the sessions that I incorporate cupping into result in minimal, if any, marking. (This may not have always been the case in my early days of practicing cupping! But now I've been doing it for several years and am confident in my application of the cups.) Most clients express that cupping feels good, and I can definitely tell that it loosens adhesions and warms up tissue, allowing me to work deeper with less effort and resistance from the body.
Cindy Iwlew is owner of Bodywork By Design, a private therapeutic massage studio in Battle Creek, Michigan.
She is cofounder of Bodywork Buddy Massage Software, a complete online management solution for independent massage therapists that includes online scheduling.