What is Cupping?

Sep 28, 2023

Have you ever heard of cupping? Wondered what those mysterious ‘bruises’ are on athletes like Michael Phelps? Well, here is a little more information and background on this therapeutic technique.

Cupping by definition is “the application of suction or vacuum to the skin.” The use of this negative pressure can be utilized to pull the superficial layers of skin, creating space between the tissue. This space allows old debris to come to the surface and is often referred to as interstitial debris. Cupping has been around for over 5000 years, with the earlier versions utilizing bamboo or animal horns. In early practice, cupping would be utilized to remove or ‘suction’ unwanted materials from the body whether to draw out sickness, pains, pathogenic substances or evil spirits.

Today’s modern cupping is now commonly utilized to help alleviate muscle tension, pain, headaches, myofascial adhesions or trigger points, as well as facilitate the production of collagen. The most common cups used in clinical practice are made of soft-rubber, silicone, or plastic and are utilized with a ‘pump gun.’

How Does It Work?
Cupping works on the physiological level of the body in the following ways:

  • Negative Pressure: cups create a pulling action allowing for the separation of fused or adhered tissue. This pulling can potentially draw out any interstitial debris trapped within the layers of soft tissue.
  • Vasodilation: cups stimulate a local vasodilation response within the underlying tissue structures. This dilation allows for the fluids to rush into or through an area.
  • Enhanced Fluid Exchange: cups act as a vacuum, drawing fluids into previously deficient areas (dehydrated, malnourished or ischemic tissue). Cups encourage fluid flow through their respective processes including capillary exchange and lymph drainage.

What Can Cupping Do For You?

  • Based on the physiological responses created by cupping, therapeutic cupping can help:
  • Encourage circulation (blood and lymph).
  • Alleviate adhesions (two anatomic structures stuck together that do not naturally connect, due to injury or inflammation). This can occur in muscles, connective tissues such as facia, or visceral organs.
  • Help clear congestions and stagnation which can potentially release interstitial debris. Interstitial debris is any material that the body could not dispose of on its own, such as old blood deposits from an injury or surgery, cellular waste (lactic acid), or medications.

Varied Techniques:

  • Static or Stationary Cupping: cups can be applied to problem areas (e.g. trigger point, muscle spasm, or tight tissue) and left for 3 – 30 minutes. By leaving the cup on the skin for a prolonged period of time, a sustained vacuum is created allowing for the release of old debris (i.e. blood, lymph) that has been trapped. Some discoloration will appear in the shape of the cup depending how long it is left in place. Appearing like a bruise, these marks can disappear within a few minutes or days depending on the amount of congestion within the tissue.
  • Dynamic Cupping: slow motions are used in combination with suction to either redirect tissue alignment or decongest adhesions. Slow motions are used along the muscle and circular motions over trigger points.
  • Squeeze and Release (Cup and Release): This technique is often used over sensitive or painful areas for quick release to desensitize tenderness in preparation for either static or dynamic cupping techniques. 

What to Expect with Cupping:

Depending on the application most suited for you, cupping can affect varying structures in the body including epithelial tissue (skin), connective tissues, muscular tissue, as well as nervous tissue. The effects of cupping can penetrate up to 2 – 4 inches into the body, allowing deeper and quicker results than traditional soft tissue techniques. Cups can stimulate superficial or surface circulation as well as desensitize superficial pain patterns. Unlike traditional massage, cups provide the ability to gently lift as opposed to press on already sensitive tissues, creating a more comfortable or pain-relieving experience.

Sometimes a bruised like appearance may occur that are referred to as “marks”.  Unlike bruising, these marks are a response to interstitial debris being lifted to the surface. In the world of cupping, these marks are considered a bonus for this reason. While sensitivity occurs, marks are typically not painful to the touch and usually fade within a few days.

Interested in trying cupping? Contact us here at Suburban Orthopaedics and one of our Physical Therapists or Physical Therapist Assistants will be happy to discuss your treatment needs and determine if cupping can help you!

Request an Appointment

At Suburban Orthopaedics, our providers are here to help you. Set up an appointment today.