Cupping Therapy: Behind Those Circular Bruises

Aug 12, 2016

Jonathan Yaden

by Jonathan Yaden
PT, DPT | Litchfield Park Location

As we all flock to our TVs to support and cheer on our country, we take notice of athletes often forgotten by big media channels in events like synchronized diving, swimming, rowing, beach volleyball, and even gymnastics. We sit and watch in amazement as they accomplish seemingly superhuman feats. It’s a way for the country and world to bond over a universal language—sports.
Every four years the best of the best gather to compete against each other for a chance to win the holy grail of sports, an Olympic medal. And every four years new trends, training philosophies, and rehab products take the spotlight.
This year’s Olympic games have brought attention to the purple and red bruised dots all over Michael Phelps, and almost every other athlete competing. As those who have already Googled it know, the marks are from receiving cupping therapy.
Cupping therapy is an ancient technique used to pull toxins from the body. Today it is used for a variety of reasons including rehabilitation, pain management, and improving athletic performance.
The process is simple—a plastic, silicone, or glass cup is placed over the skin and light suction lifts the tissue underneath. This can be done by using a heat source (such as a flame), which is placed inside the cup for a couple of seconds. This changes the air temperature, causing a vacuum effect that seals the rim of the cup to the skin. It can also be done by using a hand-pump, manipulating the air pressure through a rubberized valve at the tip of the cup.
Now that we have the “what,” let’s answer the “why.”
The therapy changes how the body functions from a musculoskeletal and circulatory standpoint. The suction effect increases blood flow to the area, providing nutrients and oxygen to the tissue. It also helps to break up metabolic waste that has accumulated during strenuous activities or following the recovery of an injury or surgery. Freshly circulating blood and less metabolic waste improves muscle function and recovery time.
Cupping also creates separation and movement between fascial layers. Fascia is the tissue that divides and connects our entire muscular system. When it is restricted, it also restricts our range of motion, flexibility, and even our strength. Traditional massage therapy or physical therapy techniques apply pressure to the skin to address fascia restrictions, thus improving the function of the muscle it encases. Cupping allows us to do the same thing but in a more efficient way that also improves blood supply and healing time.
Now, the big question: “Don’t those big bruises hurt?”
Those purplish bruises are actually the remnants of burst capillaries under the skin. You see, our skin can only take so much pulling and stretching before the blood vessels inside hit their limit and burst. Yes, they look painful, but in most cases they are purely aesthetic, and there is minimal tenderness even an hour after cupping is performed. Some people don’t experience bruising at all. The reaction is based on the elasticity of each person’s skin.
To be perfectly clear, cupping is no walk in the park. After all, suction is pulling your skin, tissue, and muscle into a small plastic cup. While it’s uncomfortable during the process, once the pressure is released the discomfort dissipates. You are left with, for lack of a better term, a giant hickey, but the benefits often exceed any discomfort and the less than attractive marks.
However, cupping therapy should only be administered by a trained professional. At home kits and lack of training can result in further injury or permanent damage to the skin and subcutaneous structures.
Cupping, when performed by a trained professional, can be an amazing addition to any training or rehab regimen. If you would like to try cupping therapy for performance or rehabilitation purposes, please contact your local Arizona physical therapy experts at Foothills Sports Medicine for more information.

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