Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Cupping Relieves Pain, Speeds Healing

Cupping as a Treatment for Pain and Accelerant to Healing.

From the start of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, cupping has been in the news. Athletes such as Michael Phelps have all been 'spotted' with very regular circular bruise-like marks. It seems that the Olympics are fast becoming the signature event for introducing the world to alternative treatment modalities that, while popular among top athletes, are little known among the general public.

Image By Craig Maccubbin
(Flickr: Overhand Serve)
[CC BY 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
The most obvious example was in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where beach volleyball powerhouse duo Kerri Walsh and Misty May dominated their increasingly popular sport. Keri Walsh had a very colorful elastic tape on her shoulder—and Kinesiotape's webpage hits went up from about 600 views per day to 345,000 per day! Elite athletes had been using Kinesiotape before this, but it was not usually visible under their gear. Given that the women's beach volleyball uniform is a basically a bikini, this tape became very visible. Since then, Kinesiotape has become widely used by a wide range of health practitioners, and by athletes from professionals to weekend warriors.

Jumping forward to this year, we see that legendary swimmer Michael Phelps is bringing wide attention to another frequently used ‘alternative’ practice. But what is it, and what is it for?

By Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil [CC BY 3.0 br
via Wikimedia Commons
Cupping has its roots in ancient Chinese medicine, and has also been practiced in ancient Egypt and the Middle East. Cupping uses fire to create a vacuum in glass or bamboo cups, which are then adhered to the skin. The fire (usually in the form of a cotton ball soaked in alcohol) is held in the cup, thereby using up the oxygen and creating a vacuum. The fire is then removed from cup, and the cup is quickly placed on the skin. There are also vacuum pumped plastic cups and silicon suction cups available which do not require the fire to create a vacuum. In either case, the cups are left on for about 5-15 minutes. It’s also possible to do “moving cupping,” in which the cups are moved over tight tissue.

There are many possible uses of cupping in Chinese medicine, but treating sore muscles from overuse and accelerating healing is what athletes such as Phelps are looking for. When muscles become overly tight, the added tension compresses capillaries—the very delicate, microscopic blood vessels where oxygen and nutrients are exchanged between the blood and the body's tissues, and where metabolic waste products move from the tissues to the blood. This compression reduces blood flow and oxygen to the muscles; as with any tissue that is not getting adequate oxygen, pain and soreness and reduced healing time follows.

Cupping decompresses the muscles and their connective tissue layers while pulling stagnant blood to the surface. This stagnant blood is what is observed as the purplish circle, which looks like a very symmetrical bruise and lasts about a week. The amount of discoloration is determined by the amount of suction, the amount of time the cups remain in place, and by the amount of stagnation that was there in the first place. As the stagnant blood is pulled to the surface, fresh, oxygenated blood can move into the muscle, which can relieve pain and increase healing time.

Many people wonder if it hurts, which is not surprising since the mark looks like a bruise, and cupping may be momentarily uncomfortable, depending on the patient. The resulting discolored mark, however, is not painful, and patients are often unaware of it if it is on their back or some other spot they can’t see. I caution them to let their partners know to expect it and not be alarmed at how dramatic the mark looks until the discoloration diminishes. Not surprisingly, as the procedure is repeated, the amount of discoloration is less each time as the amount of stagnation and compression is reduced.

There are variations to placing the cups on the body and having them remain in place. A small amount of lubricant can be placed on the skin before adhering the cups. The cups can then be moved while maintaining suction. Or, the cups can be adhered to a region that is particularly tight and the patient can be asked to perform slow movements while the practitioner manipulates the cups. All of these techniques can further serve as a type of myofascial release (manipulation of the muscle and fascia) which can increase blood flow, decompress the tissue, and restore proper range of motion. The big difference is that, compared to deep tissue massage strokes, which push down on and compress the muscles and connective tissue, cupping lifts and decompresses the muscles and connective tissue.
Cupping has some positive research to back it up, though it is not extensively researched and more good quality studies would be helpful for cupping to be accepted in the mainstream of medicine. It is shown to have few adverse effects, and those that are reported are mild. 1,2,3
If you are an athlete and looking to reduce healing time and increase performance, call your local acupuncturist today to give cupping a try. You may find that Michael Phelps is onto something!


1. Cao, Huijuan, Xun Li, and Jianping Liu. “An Updated Review of the Efficacy of Cupping Therapy.” Ed. German Malaga. PLoS ONE 7.2 (2012): e31793. PMC. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

2. Kim, Jong-In et al. “Cupping for Treating Pain: A Systematic Review.”Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM 2011 (2011): 467014. PMC. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

3. Mehta, Piyush, and Vividha Dhapte. "Cupping Therapy: A Prudent Remedy for a Plethora of Medical Ailments." Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine 5.3 (2015): 127-34. Web.

Facebook icon Google Search icon LinkedIn icon Instagram icon YouTube icon

No comments:

Post a Comment