Updated: May 19
23-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps would famously compete in the pool with the distinctive circular marks across his shoulders and back. “I’ve done it before meets, pretty much every meet I go to,” remarked Phelps during the 2016 Rio Olympics.
What is cupping therapy?
Cupping therapy is an ancient, alternative therapy that has roots in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. It is traditionally used to help relieve muscle tension, increase blood circulation and reduce pain.
There are two forms of cupping therapy: ‘dry cupping’ and ‘wet cupping’. Dry cupping is the most well-known and widely used of the two. Dry cupping involves applying glass, silicone or bamboo cups to the skin for a few minutes to create a suction. The suction is caused by either a pump which is attached to the cups, or by lighting a flame under the glass cup to draw out the oxygen from the cup, which in turn creates a vacuum when applied to the skin. Many therapists prefer the pump method, as it gives them more control over the intensity of the suction. Wet cupping – which is a lesser-used form of cupping – uses the same basic method as dry cupping, but involves making a slight slit in the skin before placing the cup on top of the slit to encourage the area to bleed slightly.
The effects of pulling on the skin during the suction process is believed to decompress the muscles and connective tissue, while promoting blood flow to the area. Cupping therapists believe this speeds up the body’s own healing process, and can assist elite athletes by easing discomfort, improving range of motion and boosting recovery between intense training sessions.
Why does cupping leave marks on the body?
During the cupping process, the skin is sucked into the cup, creating what looks like a small dome of flesh. Although the cups are only placed on the skin for a few minutes, it’s sufficient to cause capillaries just below the surface of the skin to break. This results in reddening of the skin, which can develop into what looks like dark purple, brown or red bruises in a distinctive circular shape. These marks usually disappear within a couple of days. Many people will be familiar with this capillary-bursting process without necessarily realising it; if you were to use your mouth to suck on the back of your hand for a minute or so, you would see the same reaction.
Some therapists believe that the redder the skin gets, the more the treatment was needed.
How is cupping therapy used?
During the treatment, the cups can either be left in one place for a few minutes (usually allowing for a stronger suction to be used), or the cup can be moved over the skin during the suction process (which requires a slightly looser suction, to allow for the movement). Similar to the sensation of a deep tissue massage, sliding the cup over the skin allows for a greater surface area to be covered and can help work on particularly stubborn knots.
From a practical point of view, cupping therapy can reduce the pressure placed on therapists’ hands and wrists. The cupping can also be used to help pre-reduce muscle tension in a particular area before manually massaging the area.
How can I try cupping therapy?
With interest in cupping therapy increasing in recent years, home-kits for dry cupping are more widely available. However, while at-home dry cupping is unlikely to cause harm if done correctly, we would always recommend seeking a professionally trained and accredited therapist to perform the treatment, to ensure the proper technique and maximum benefits are experienced.
Text credit: Songbird Naturals - songbirdnaturals.co.uk
Photos: Andrew Leon - instagram.com/drew_sonic