Cupping is an ancient Chinese medicine technique that's actually been around for over 1000 years. There have NOT been many studies conducted, nor many therapist traditionally trained, which is why most people haven't heard or seen of cupping until the most recent Olympics (Thanks Michael Phelps!).
**I am simply trying to present the facts and theories about cupping. I have not conducted any studies other than the applied usage of cupping to myself and clients over the past 7 years.**
Most people have seen the “markings” or “cup kisses” that look like huge painful bruises and hickies but have no idea what they are from or the purpose. So let's break down what cupping does, the theory behind it, and what it can do for you and your body.
Most people know what foam rolling is, also known as smashing. Foam rolling is considered a myo-fascial release; Myo, meaning muscle, fascial referring to the fascia tissue (Fascia tissue will be explained in the next paragraph). Foam rolling is also what we consider a “positive pressure”, or again “smashing”. This means that force is applied downward onto the muscle. Cupping has similar affects as foam rolling in terms of myo-fascial release; but there are some differences. Cupping is what we consider a “negative pressure”. This means that there is an outside force upward, or “sucking”, and the pressure on the muscle is on the outside, but pulling it upward. So how is it that both “smashing” and “sucking”, complete opposite forces can have the same type of release work? Well let's look at what fascia tissue is.
Fascia is an endless sheath of collagen based connective tissue that runs throughout the whole body. ALL systems of the body converge and interact with fascia tissue, including the musculoskeletal system, circulatory system, and nervous system. Without taking you to full year of an anatomy class let's break down the main parts of the fascia tissue.
There are 4 main “types” of fascia tissue; Structural, inter-structural, visceral, and spinal.
This tissue runs under the skin but above the muscle. It does not innovate or control any part of the muscle, BUT it can affect how the muscle is ALLOWED to move. How?
Since fascia tissue is collagen based, it's main job is to resist tensile forces; it's very stretchy and very strong due to its over lap design (think of thousands of strands of hair). Our muscles and joints are meant to contract and relax, not push outward and resist downward forces. However, fascia tissue can only take so much pressure and force, and will begin to tear. When this happens a “web” of tissue is created in criss-cross spider web design. The same happens when muscles and tendons tear; fascia tissue steps in and creates an internal natural cast until the tissue can heal. But again this “cast” is a web design, not smooth unrestricted single directional tissue, and it now causes the muscular tissue to be attached or “stick” to the surrounding fascia tissue for support. So you now have an area in the body (whether it's the muscle itself or just the surrounding fascia tissue), that has fibers of connective tissue running in a multitude of directions. Imagine tying 100 rubber-bands together, binding them all to one main rubber-band, and then trying to stretch the main rubber-band in ONE direction; it would have a lot of pull and restriction. The same thing happens to the muscles.
Myo-fascial release work has become the most modern usage of cupping. But traditionally there are many uses of cupping such as detoxification, chi restoration, disease and infection prevention, immune support and many more. The idea behind the suction is that the pressure causes 2 main things to happen; it draws old stagnant blood full of toxins to the surface forcing new nutrient rich blood in, and 2. It causes an inflammatory response causing an influx of T-cells (white blood cells) to the area. These are the building block cells. So if there is tearing or injury in the area, the bodies natural response to the suction is an immediate influx of “materials” to heal the area. Yes, causing an inflammatory response ( under a train professional) is a GOOD thing. It is actually the first stage of 3 in healing; Inflammation, repair, remolding. So those “cup kisses” you see after a session, is typically one and/or both of these things happening!
Whoa that's a lot happening! Don't worry, your body does this naturally so you don't have to think about it! But now that we have an idea of what our body does when exposed to injury let's circle back to myo-fascial release and how positive and negative pressure will differ.
You may think you're super healthy, no injuries, no tears, workout every day...... Stop there! You workout. You are tearing your muscles! Don't worry this is GOOD......as long as you don't over do it! Your muscles create what are called micro-tears, or tiny tiny tears in the muscle when you workout. Then when you eat, sleep, and recover, your body sends all the healthy and appropriate nutrients to build the muscle back up; bigger and stronger! Positive pressure, such as foam rolling, also creates these micro-tears. Cupping however, because it is not applying any force ONTO the muscle does NOT create any additional tears.
Foam rolling is not bad by any means, but those of us who have tried to foam roll on very sore and over used muscles like out IT band know how painful it can be. Now cupping won't necessarily be LESS painful, but it will not create more micro-tears leading to more tenderness and soreness. You also eliminate the possibility of going too hard (like you can with foam rolling) and bruising or irritating deeper fibers of muscle.
Cupping suctions upward, releasing stuck fascia tissue from surrounding muscle tissue, but does not apply any pressure onto the actual muscle. We considered this superficial work, and therefore an individual (although they may feel tenderness) can resume normal activities such as working out immediately after a session without risk of negatively affecting muscles. Foam rolling and other positive pressures affect both fascial tissue as well as deep muscular tissue, and can put muscles at a higher risk of injury, or further tearing if workouts are resumed immediately after a session.
There are many different types of cupping, the most traditional being with glass cups and fire, which creates a vacuum. More modern cupping is done with plastic cups and a hand pump, as well as silicone cups, which can be used with applied motion to increase range of motion.
Studies are being conducted more and more, with some saying there are a high percentage of false positives due to a placebo affect. In either case, whether it's your mind, or your muscles that are healing, if you feel better, function better, and believe in your bodies own healing power then keep doing whatever it is you are doing! Cupping although not yet heavily researched, is one of the safest modalities there is.
Because it is not applying force onto a muscle no damage can be done. There are some contraindications such as pregnancy, heart disease, sickness or infection, broken skin, thinning skin, blood thinners, blood clot and pitting edema. Due to its high detoxification, people going through chemo therapy should NOT receive cupping for a minimum of 6 weeks after the last treatment or until doctor approval.