How Cupping Works and How/When we Use It

You have probably seen the obvious circular bruises on the occasional back or shoulders as the result of cupping. If you know nothing of cupping or have never been cupped you may think, based on the deep purple bruising, this technique may be painful or destructive.  But, in fact cupping has been used for 2,000 years within Chinese Medicine to induce healing and is very non-invasive. 

Cupping was initially used for energetic healing, but throughout time cupping has gained merit in the Western world as a non-invasive technique for soft tissue rehab and pain management. It can ease back pain, neck pain, headaches, some nerve pain, improve blood flow, and more.

So, how does cupping work?  There are two theories to how cupping works.

The first theory is a biomechanical theory that uses the premise that decompression is beneficial to release adhesions and muscular tension. When a cup is placed on the skin it creates suction that pulls on the skin.  This pulling or “tensioning” of the skin is the greatest at the center of the cup, but as you move towards the outer edges of the cup the force changes to a strong compression under the rims.  This theory is that this compression-to-tension creates decompression of the tissue under the cup.  

cupping therapy for shoulders

Decompression can be used for more than release of tension or adhesions.  It has been shown to relieve nerve pain.  Nerve pain can be pesky as nerves don’t like to be compressed or stretched, so what can you do about it?  

The use of a myofascial cup for pain in the body can be a great option for people. A buzzword of neuropathy is becoming more prevalent. Neuropathy is described as a pain or symptoms derived from nerves that are away from the spine. The symptoms can be a combination of weakness, numbness in or around the extremities. Using a cup to decompress the surrounding tissue along the path those nerves can be useful in decreasing the surrounding inflammation. 

The second theory is a circulatory theory, which is a fancy way of saying “improving blood flow.”  Blood is your body’s natural medicine as it carries vital nutrients and hormones essential for repair and regeneration of tissue.  When circulation gets disrupted due to scar tissue there is often an inadequate blood supply to carry the needed nutrients to assist in healing.  This can also compromise the lymphatic system causing chronic inflammation and secondary injury to tissue. Cupping “pools” blood in a particular area which aids in the regeneration of new micro blood vessels, so the area can regain circulation.  

The beauty of cupping is it is hard to do wrong.  Because it is so non-invasive it is something you can do at home to help with recovery (however, it is always advised to seek treatment or guidance from a physician or licensed practitioner prior).  When cupping on your own an important thing to keep in mind is you should not cup the same spot within 48-72 hours.  Cupping the same tissue without giving it an opportunity for recovery can create a mild hematoma. Also, do not cup an open wound or damaged skin. 

When cupping on your own, you only need to cup for 5-10 minutes to reap the benefits.  Cupping can be done both statically and dynamically…which means while staying still or when moving.  

Static cupping is used when you want to improve blood flow to an area. A cup is placed and left for time. There are many ways to do this but we do what we can to not overdue it. 

As far a dynamic cupping goes, there are a few types of dynamic cupping.  The first can be done by applying lubricant to the skin and then sliding the cup around an area. This helps with decompression of soft tissue. Another way is to place the cup on the skin, then physically move your body.  This type of cupping helps when a joint is restricted or lacking range of motion. Lastly, is a technique we already touched upon – using the cup to relieve tension on a nerve by gently pulling the suctioned cup and skin away from the body to help relieve compression on nerves. 

cupping therapy with movement

Not all cupping is the same, but it can be used in several ways to help rehab you back to feeling good. Again, to know how to use your cups most efficiently and effectively…it is advised that you meet with a licensed physician to identify the problem. 

So, the next time you see those circular bruises, you’ll know they are part of a bigger process of feeling better.

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