If you have ever been in my office for bodywork then you have likely experienced cupping. It has been an integral part of my practice for over 10 years and I am still in awe of the healing power of this ancient technique. But what is it? And what does it do? These are two questions that I often get in my office and I generally like to let the cupping speak for itself, but lately it seems to be getting quite a bit of attention in both our mainstream media and in various communication avenues of our local health community. So I thought I would share my personal take both as a practitioner and patient of this powerful healing tool.
So...what is it?
Cupping is an ancient healing technique that is believed to have been used by medicine people all over the world as treatment for various diseases and conditions. There is evidence that versions have historically been used in Egypt, Bulgaria and even in some Native American tribes here in North America. However, it is in China that it is thought to have originated dating as far back as 3,000 years ago. Today it is used as a Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture treatment for various and many conditions ranging from kidney and liver disorders to digestive issues and depression. In recent years the technique has been increasingly used in the physical therapy, massage therapy and bodywork worlds to treat soft tissue problems like false sciatica, tendonitis and arthritis. Due to the non-aggressive nature and positive circulatory effects of the treatment the list of conditions that can benefit from it is long and quite surprisingly varied.
Glass, silicone or plastic cups are generally used in the therapeutic settings and each one utilizes a different avenue for creating negative pressure, or suction. For example, fire cupping is done with glass cups and uses a flame to create a vacuum inside the dome and is by far my personal favorite both to use and have done. Silicone cups are gentle along the boney structures and can be helpful in small or challenging areas of the body, such as the forearms or along the front of the low leg. Static cupping, where the cups are left stationary for anywhere from 5-20 minutes (as demonstrated in the photo above), tends to elicit more dramatic markings and accesses the stagnant toxins that are stored in the deeper nooks and crannies of the body. Running, or moving, cupping tends to be a less aggressive approach and focuses more on increasing the elasticity of connective tissue and pumping the circulatory fluids throughout the area. In my practice, I work with both techniques and find that the constitution of each person and how a body is presenting in each session can be radically different. It is essential to read the patient's energetic and physiological status with care and clarity before every single treatment.
How does it help?
- Increases range of motion and relieves tension
The vacuum creates an environment of more space in the body and provides an opportunity for the soft tissue structures to breathe themselves more deeply into their full potential. As the layers of superficial fascia are lifted areas with adhesions and scar tissue are liberated gifting the structures underneath with a greater range of motion. If you consider the energetics of massage work, the practitioner is pushing in and down into the body. Where there is already a compressed or tightened state this technique can sometimes only be minimally effective. Cupping offers the benefits of the exact opposite approach by lifting the sticky and compressed tissue and releasing it allowing for full freedom of movement and release of tension.
- Circulatory reboot and detox
Fresh blood floods the area quickly forcefully expelling the waste and toxins that build up with chronically tight or injured muscles. This process pulls dead blood, static lymph, toxins and even cellular debris from deep with in the body and brings them to the surface where they can more easily be expelled. The vacuum creates a pumping action that pushes and pulls lymphatic fluids to and from the area helping to clear edema and inflammation.
- Accelerated injury recovery
The wave of oxygen and nutrient rich blood brings all of the body's brilliant healing agents to the scene and facilitates a faster recovery. Trauma in the tissues of muscles, tendons and ligaments is most often accompanied by our body's natural inflammatory response, which is an essential process during the acute stage. However, once the area is stabilized and healing begins flushing out the excess and old fluid minimizes the chance of chronic inflammation (aka coagulation of sticky proteins and old blood) setting in and increasing vulnerability to re-injury.
- Harmonizing the nervous system
Activating the parasympathetic nervous system shifts the body from a heightened state of stress and action into a restful state that initiates our natural healing mechanisms. This allows for the innate intelligence of our brilliant body to engage and facilitate healing on an energetic, emotional, spiritual and physiological plane. The result can be a feeling of peace, deep grounding, less physical pain and full relaxation . The breath becomes deeper, slower, more calm and full. Stress and worries are literally and energetically pulled out of the system leaving more space for gratitude and presence. We begin to drop into the body and FEEL what it is telling us becoming more aware and in tune with ourselves.
What about the marks?
A common misinterpretation of the marks that are often left by cupping is the assumption that the tissue has been bruised. I feel it is important to distinguish the difference between a bruise and the discoloration that can happen from clearing pathologic factors from the body. Bruising is the result of impact or a sudden compression trauma to the tissue. The surrounding capillaries rupture and trigger the inflammatory response in order to minimize damage in the case of an injury. There is no impact or compression present in a properly administered cupping session and the 'marks' that can occur are therapeutically valued because they are direct indicators of the level of sticky tissue, blood stagnation and toxicity that is present. The darker the discoloration of the skin the greater level of pathologic factors. Over time and repeated treatments these factors are cleared and the intensity of the marks either decrease significantly or do not show up at all.
Cupping therapy is one of my favorite ways to begin a bodywork session. Immediately on contact the cups ask you to be more present with your body and listen to its requests. It taps you more deeply into your breath and is an incredible ally in the healing process of many conditions of dis-ease. It grounds the energy of the nervous system and allows for more space for the body, mind and soul to feel nourished and fed. Above all...it feels amazing.