How would you react if you arrived at your monthly massage appointment and your therapist tells you she learned a new technique she wants to try… a technique that just so happened to involve.. suction cups?
It may sound kind of crazy, but it’s actually a very traditional and widely used therapy that has been around for centuries and is just now starting to come back into popularity under the umbrella of “alternative medicine” (which, by now, we can all admit should be just called “original medicine”).
Let me explain.
This technique has many names, as it’s history spans across thousands of years and many cultures. Hijama, Baguanfa, Gac Hoi, Kuppaus, Vacuume Terapi – but in modern English, we refer to it simply as “cupping”. It’s use has been represented in Egyptian hieroglyphics as well as found in ancient Chinese, Islamic, and Greek cultures. While the earlier methods involved more primitive tools, such as animal horns or glass cups filled with fire (which are still used in some places today), we now have modernized the practice to include hard plastic or soft silicone – easily sanitized, effective, and non-flammable. So, how does it work?
One or more cups are placed on an area of your body – usually an area of high tension. Suction is created within the cups (in plastic, with a pump, or in silicone, simply by pressing the top of the cup) and pulls the area underneath up into the cups themselves. From the outside, it looks strange or even painful, but the majority of people who have experienced cupping have described it as relaxing, a warming sensation, or even firm pressure. The cups can either be left in one place or moved around the body as if mimicking massage strokes. By creating this suction, we are not only bringing increased circulation to that area, but we are also stretching and releasing tight tissues like fascia, which is the connective tissue that is “very densely woven, covering and interpenetrating every muscle, bone, nerve, artery and vein, as well as, all of our internal organs including the heart, lungs, brain and spinal cord.” Since the lymphatic system is so close to the surface of the skin, lymph flow is also increased.
“Trauma, inflammatory responses, and/or surgical procedures create myofascial restrictions that can produce tensile pressures of approximately 2,000 pounds per square inch on pain sensitive structures that do not show up in many of the standard tests (x-rays, myelograms, CAT scans, electromyography, etc.) A high percentage of people suffering with pain and/or lack of motion may be having fascial problems, but are not diagnosed.” -John F. Barnes, PT, Myofascial Release educator
As you could by now imagine, many health benefits can be derived from this technique. Since we are increasing blood flow, we are increasing the healing properties around the area, not only by saturating the area with blood but also by creating new blood vessels (or neovascularization). This healing is also increased by the slight inflammatory response of the body, which releases white blood cells, platelets and fibroblasts to the area. Because of it’s effects on the lymphatic system, cupping is able to not only reduce swelling and edema but also support and promote a healthy immune system. By stretching and releasing tight fascia, massage therapists are able to perform deeper and more effective bodywork techniques – oftentimes without the pain you would expect to experience from a deep tissue massage.
” I have been a cupping practitioner for the past 9-going on 10 years…I have seen a lot with my cupping experiences. I have seen scar tissue soften and break down right before my eyes, I have felt immediate relief from numbness and tingling in my own arms. I have felt the amazing benefits of sinus draining when my client or myself suffer from sinus congestion. There are so many wonderful benefits to cupping and a wide range of what it can treat! Migraine headaches, shin splints, cramping, lymphatic drainage for weight loss…the possibilities are endless!” – Kate Riherd-Rogers, LMT in Forest City, Iowa
Cupping has also been shown to have a sedating effect on the sympathetic nervous system. I have personally had clients exclaim how they didn’t expect to feel so relaxed during and after a session of lymphatic drainage or cupping, and even have had several fall asleep. In fact, I just recently performed a couple minutes of light cupping on a regular client who was experiencing extreme muscle tension in her upper back. After the massage session, she informed me that whatever I did (I don’t even think she realized I had used the cups), it was the best massage she had ever experienced, to the point where it was difficult for her to get off the table!
“I’ve been cupping practitioner for 5 years. Besides the softening of scar, muscle tissue, it has helped my insomnia clients relax and actually sleep. Helped with clients with PTSD, depression, self harm and relieving those feelings. ” – La Homa Simmonds, LMT in Boone, Iowa
From an aesthetic point of view, there have even been claims that cupping may help with skin issues, such as scar tissue or even cellulite (which I have not personally experienced yet – if any of my clients want to help me test this theory, let me know!). Of course, these are not an inclusive list of all the benefits of cupping – from sports injuries to orthepedic conditions, sinus relief and lymphatic drainage, insomnia and chronic fatigue… the possibilities with this technique keep growing as more and more therapists uncover more applications through increased client exposure and interest.
At the moment, my favorite application of cupping is along the iliotibial, or IT, band. This band is actually a tendon that runs on the outside of the thigh from the hip down to the knee, and on many people is extremely tight and may feel like a hard rod or piece of frozen taffy. Tendons, unlike muscles, do not really “stretch” – which was even demonstrated once by hanging a heavy weight from a cadaver’s IT band – so therefore traditional massage techniques can be largely ineffective. However, with cupping, the tissues are pulled UP (instead of compressed), thereby not only releasing tension but also promoting the circulation benefits previously mentioned for healing. I have found that, along with working on and stretching the muscles surrounding the IT band (the tensor fasciae latae and gluteus maxiumus), cupping has been an excellent aid in solving IT band issues, including those manifesting in the hip and knee.
“I have just begun to use silicone cups in my massage practice. I like the way cupping warms superficial muscles and connective tissue and gets the body ready for deeper work. Suction is great for working with sticky IT bands, scar tissue and trigger points. My clients find cupping very relaxing.” – Nancy Barnett, LMT in Windsor Heights, Iowa
Since incorporating cupping into my practice, I have noticed more of my clients leaving more relaxed and satisfied with their session. I am able to work deeper and release more tension and trigger points than I was previously able to with my hands alone, making our time together way more effective. I am usually not a fan of “tools”, and other than hot stones, have never in my almost ten years of massage incorporated tech-required modalities into my practice. Yet, after experiencing cupping firsthand from another therapist and personally experiencing the benefits, I became interested in learning more – and I’m so glad I did!
Of course, like with any bodywork modality, some may discover that cupping is not a safe or appropriate technique for them. Some situations where this may occur include:
-Clients who are on blood thinners or have been diagnosed with blood diseases, such as hemophilia
-Areas where clients are suffering from skin issues such as dermatitis, open wounds, or infections
-Areas of varicose veins
-Clients who suffer from severe health issues, such as congestive heart failure
-Areas of severe edema
These are just some examples and may not be all-inclusive; as always, talk to your therapist about any concerns you may have and be as thorough as possible when you are filling out health history forms. Depending on how much congestion or tension you have, or how the therapist performs the technique, you may also leave a cupping session with circles on your skin that may look like hickeys or bruises. I have had conversations with clients who have seen these marks on friends or family and assumed they were a result of a painful or poorly applied cupping session, which actually isn’t the case. These marks are normal, are not necessarily indicative of a bad or painful session, and seem to occur more in clients who have more “issues” to work with or whose therapists perform more stationary cupping techniques. However, if this is a concern, make sure to let your therapist know before a session.
“Often when pathologic factors and stagnant fluids (toxins, blood and lymph) are dredged up during treatment, discoloration will appear on the skin. This is the therapeutically desired effect – the more this is visible, the greater the level of stagnation and toxicity that has been removed. “Bruising” is caused by impact trauma with breakage of capillaries and reactionary rush of fluids to the damaged area from the tissue compression/injury, and there is no compression in properly employed suction cup therapy, so bruising should not occur” – DreamClinic.com
Hopefully, this post was able to help give a brief education on what cupping is – if you would like to learn more, there are many resources online, such as CuppingTherapy.org and the Natural News archives, which has several articles spanning from 2009 to 2013. Or, you can approach your local massage therapist who has been trained in this technique. You can also view some cupping videos on YouTube to get an idea of the various techniques and cup styles, as well as what it can look like, such as this video showing a basic Swedish massage variation of cupping for relaxation and lymph flow using silicone cups (which is what I personally use).
Have you experienced cupping, as a therapist or a client? Comment below with your experiences!