The Olympics have done a great deal in drawing attention to the world of "cupping." Unfortunately, much of what has been presented by the media has left people confused or outright terrified of what they might be subjected to in the treatment room of their nearest massage therapist. With videos and images of ghastly black circles, grimacing faces, screams, and even spilled blood one can certainly be given the impression that "cupping" is something that came straight out of the dark ages. This is precisely why we thought it was an appropriate time to paint a more accurate picture of what Massage Cupping actually is, as distinguished from that of Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) Cupping or "wet cupping", and review some of the benefits that it can have for those who suffer with muscle pain, tension, fascial adhesions, and even general stress.
"Cupping," as the term is broadly used, has a vast history and is estimated to have begun circa 3000 B.C. with crude implements being made from hollow animal horns and bamboo, to molded glass or even silicone in the modern era. The general concept of cupping is that "rarified air" (basically, lowered air pressure) is used to draw the skin and underlying muscles and other tissues up into the cup in order to achieve the desired effect depending upon the type of application. There are different methods used in the world of cupping with "wet cupping" (modern day blood letting) being popular among Chinese and Muslim peoples to achieve specific results (such as in TCM), "fire cupping" which simply refers to the method used to lower the air pressure within the cups (glass or other), and "dry cupping" being favored by many others such as wellness practitioners, which often includes massage therapists.
What Massage Cupping is Not
Massage therapists practice a form of dry cupping which is NOT one in the same as TCM Cupping or wet cupping. Massage therapists do NOT make incisions of any kind in the skin to cause the cups to extract blood from the body tissues as in wet cupping, and use stationary cupping as done with TCM. We'd like to offer a huge thanks to ACE Massage Cupping for their helpful video showing the technique used most often used by massage therapists which is in no way terrifying, but perhaps just a little odd for the first time viewer (actual apparatus may very slightly). We promise you will NOT experience any scalpels, nor pins or needles, and definitely no blood or tears when you receive a Massage Cupping treatment.
Massage Cupping Explained
Massage therapy has been defined most simply as the manipulation of the soft tissues of the body for the purpose of normalizing those tissues via movement, pressure, vibration, rocking, pulling, kneading, or tapotement. Massage cupping in a nutshell is manipulation of the soft tissues of the body for the purpose of normalizing those tissues via a suction apparatus, most commonly, a glass, silicone, or plastic cup. The main difference between a regular massage and a cup massage is that with a regular massage there is some form of pressure being applied at any given moment, whereas in Massage Cupping, the tissues are lifted away from the body and underlying and/or surrounding tissues are stretched and separated one from another helping to relieve adhesions or restrictions within the fascia and increasing blood and lymph flow throughout the surrounding area.
Is it painful? Will I look like I've been attacked by a twenty foot long octopus? Massage Cupping is most easily illustrated by thinking of how it feels to apply the suction of a vacuum cleaner tube to the palm of your hand, or what it feels like to create a vacuum with your mouth inside an empty plastic cup. Depending upon the amount of suction used, the intensity of cupping increases. There are various applications for massage cupping that can be somewhat uncomfortable, but they should never be overly painful. And as with any suction process, there can be marks left on the surface of the skin, but all of this is dependent upon the overall health of the tissues and the degree of suction used. In the event that discoloration does occur, it is much less pronounced in Massage Cupping than with TCM Cupping, and in either scenario, the discoloration typically disappears within 3-5 days. The marks left from cupping are not painful, but recipients of treatment may feel mild sensitivity in the area where the marks occur. As a general rule, the healthier your body tissues are, the less discoloration you will have; the more unhealthy your tissues are, the more discoloration you are likely to have, though all bodies react somewhat differently. Discoloration is more pronounced in areas where blood and lymph fluids are stagnant. All in all, the effects on the body are determined first by the client who is ultimately in charge of the amount of suction the therapist uses via active communication during a treatment session, and secondly by the desired effect (e.g.: lymphatic drainage, or release of deep scar tissue). Although advocates for Massage Cupping rave about the benefits experienced, this therapy is not for everyone and we won't hold it against those who prefer not to give it a try. More often than not it is those individuals who prefer deeper forms of bodywork (like Trigger Point therapy) that appreciate Massage Cupping the most, or those who have need of lymphatic drainage.
Indications for Massage Cupping
Massage Cupping has been shown to be effective for relieving a vast number of different conditions including: chronic pain, migraines or other headaches, scars and adhesions, muscle pain, menstrual pain, scoliosis, TMJ dysfunction, and even the appearance of cellulite. It is noted for it's aid to the body in detoxification processes often helping aid in weight loss, and even has the added side benefit of helping to firm and tone the skin!
Having tried Massage Cupping for ourselves, we can attest both personally and professionally to the therapeutic benefits, and since our introduction to the practice over a decade ago, we have continued to witness Massage Cupping's ability to help soften stubbornly hypertensive muscles, loosen even very old scar tissue adhesions, speed post-surgical recovery, relieve TMJ discomfort, and even relieve discomfort associated with menstrual cramps. Due to the effect on the nervous system, cupping can actually produce a sense of calm and wellbeing which helps with stress reduction and overall pain relief. There are some contraindications associated with Massage Cupping, so please be sure to talk to your therapist if you have any current health issues or concerns.
Though an unusual-looking treatment, Massage Cupping has a myriad of benefits that work well in conjunction with any regular massage treatment or with Chiropractic care. It is a wonderful remedy for those who suffer from deep-seated pain and tension, especially along the spine and around the upper shoulders, and neck. If you would like to try Massage Cupping during your next visit, just let your therapist know, we'd be happy to show the cups to you, and even give you a brief trial run if you are uncertain about wanting a whole treatment. You can even receive a single "cup kiss" to help you experience what the marks feel like and how they quickly fade over the course of several days.
To find out more please visit the previous link, or call us and we can help you decide whether or not Massage Cupping would benefit you. Check out the video below to see the different types of Massage Cupping tools that are often used, as well as a few of the strokes or movements that massage therapists utilize during various treatment sessions.
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Jerri W., LMT, CWC
Licensed Massage Therapist and Certified Wellness Coach with over 25+ years of experience in pain management, relaxation techniques and lifestyle education.
Heather R., LMT, CWC
Certified Wellness Coach and Licensed Massage Therapist with a passion for helping others achieve optimal wellness through healthier living.
NOTICE: The information provided herein is meant for educational purposes only. We accept no liability for your use of the information provided. As always, use your best judgment and if in doubt, please consult your healthcare provider to determine the best course of action for your particular situation.