Image by Pamela Gregg Flax
The 2016 Olympics have had the unexpected benefit of ushering medical cupping into the mainstream. In this photo I took off my TV during 200M butterfly semifinals, Michael Phelps sported perfectly round ‘bruises’ and his back and shoulders, prompting curiosity about these mysterious ‘new’ sports recovery techniques. However, cupping has been used for thousands of years in China for musculoskeletal pain and detoxification.
How it works: Cups are small glass or plastic orbs. The practitioner creates a vacuum inside the cup, either through a suction pump or by lighting cotton on fire to use the oxygen and warm the air. The resulting vacuum gently but firmly pulls the skin and circulates fluids. Cups are stationary or moving, and are usually retained for 5-15 minutes.
Image by Robert Brady
What it does: Athletic stress often creates micro tears in the muscle like tiny wounds deep in the tissue. Cupping brings the stagnant blood and cellular debris to the surface so that the tissue can heal. In this way, cupping speeds sports recovery. Cupping also helps with lymphatic circulation, nipping a common cold before it becomes full blown, treating cellulite, and softening old scars.
What about the bruising? I tell people it’s like a hickey or a rug burn. The resulting bruising reveals diagnostic information, depending on color, quantity and location. Depending on a person’s circulation, the bruises disappear in 2-3 days or about one week. It’s been interesting to see how dark the cupping marks were on Phelps and the other Olympic athletes, but I was also fascinated to see how quickly the marks from the previous day disappeared and new ones appeared. Olympians have excellent circulation! But everyone, not just the athletic elite, can benefit from cupping.
Does it hurt? On the contrary, it feels great — like a relief, especially when you really need it. Moving cups is like massage, and many people love the relaxation it gives.