Myofascial cupping: The “new” ancient therapeutic techniqueJune 28, 2019 | by Erik Yuill
Three summers ago during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, I was consistently asked the same question: “What are those purple marks all over the athlete’s bodies?”
The most notable athlete mentioned was American swimmer and greatest Olympian of all time Michael Phelps. Media coverage at the time questioned the appearance of symmetrical spherical bruises on his shoulders and back. I was even asked to do a quick interview for the local news about the scientific evidence behind this “new” therapy technique.
These marks were caused, not by a cutting-edge form of athletic therapy, but by an ancient technique practiced for thousands of years: cupping – for which there was very little research from an athletic performance stand point. That has changed slightly in recent years, with a few brave authors attempting to investigate a mechanism for how cupping might help athletes jump higher, run faster and throw further.
This article will explore a bit of that research and why cupping might be an effective treatment technique for athletes.
WHAT IS CUPPING?
First, what is cupping?
Cupping technique, or myofascial cupping as it is commonly called, has been a technique practiced consistently in the traditional medical systems of Asia, the Middle East and Europe for hundreds, if not thousands, of years1-3. Its historical use can be referred back as far as 3300 BC1.
There are two main forms4 of cupping:
- Dry cupping – performed by applying the cup to selected body parts and creating suction against the skin by heat or manual pressure2.
- Wet cupping – incisions are made on the skin before cups are applied, and blood that is thought to be congested, toxic or stagnant is eliminated from the body by drawing it into the cup1.
Both forms use cups that can be made out of a variety of materials including glass, plastic, rubber, silicone or bamboo.
The neck, back, shoulders, chest, abdomen and limbs are areas commonly treated given the supply of numerous large muscle groups3. Once suction has been achieved, the cup can be moved in quick, rhythmic strokes over the muscles3,4 . Alternatively, the cup can be applied to the skin of these areas and left in place for 3 to 5 minutes.
The number of cups varies from patient to patient depending on their size and the specific condition being treated. In total, a cupping session could take about 20 to 45 minutes4.
The after effects of cupping include redness, swelling and bruising in characteristic circular patterns. These local skin changes will subside within a few weeks3.
The technique is often performed in conjunction with other therapies such as massage, acupuncture, herbal medicine and therapeutic techniques like electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and laser2.
For the purposes of this article we will focus on dry cupping.
Dry cupping therapy has been shown to be beneficial for several musculoskeletal conditions including low back pain, neck pain, and osteoarthritis1.
The main reasons practitioners perform cupping is it increases local blood circulation which promotes cellular repair, improves immunity and decreases pain1-4.
More specifically, it is known that local vasodilation (the dilatation of blood vessels to decrease blood pressure) and microcirculation improve significantly after cupping1. These local modifications along with mechanical stresses to the skin, could create signals that ultimately result in full body changes of hormone expression and pain control2.
Suffice it to say, cupping technique is a complex therapy with multidimensional influences and several possible benefits.
CUPPING AND ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
So, how does this translate to the athlete?
Over the past few years, there has been growing interest from diverse athletic populations that seek to capitalize on cupping to enhance athletic performance and improve recovery.
Cupping aids muscular regeneration and improves pain, which is beneficial to athletic performance while undergoing treatment and recovery. For example, some research has shown cupping to be beneficial in soccer players for low back and hip pain1.
Beyond this, the most common benefits reported include improved ranges of motion (ROM) and reduced blood markers of training induced tissue damage1.
Cupping was shown to decrease creatine kinase (CK) concentrations several hours post treatment. CK is an enzyme released into the blood when muscles are damaged, and thus low levels infer a potential state of muscle recovery and readiness to train again. Decreased CK following cupping is assumed to represent improved muscle regeneration and shorted time to readiness for repeated training1.
It’s important to remember that scientific evidence on the use of cupping by athletic populations is limited, especially when considering the potential benefits and suggested mechanisms. Currently no recommendation for or against cupping can be made based solely on literature.
However, that will not stop many athletes from looking for a potential advantage.
Fortius client, Athletics Canada national team member and winner of the 2019 Vancouver Sun Run Justin Kent, uses myofascial cupping as part of his personal recovery strategy to help avoid injury during heavy training periods that see him running upwards of 120 km in a week.
When asked, he said: “I use cupping as part of my home maintenance program to try and help relax sticky and hard to release areas on my legs and hips”.
It is also important that those who are delivering the technique follow appropriate guidelines and hygiene precautions to control for preventable adverse side effects. Myofascial cupping therapy is not suggested for special patient groups such as pediatrics, geriatrics, pregnancy and hemophilia3.
CUPPING AT FORTIUS
At Fortius Sport & Health, myofascial cupping is widely accessible and provided by chiropractors, registered massage therapists, and physiotherapists.
All therapy providers take care to avoid unwanted outcomes with every therapeutic technique used.
- Bridgett et al. Effects of Cupping Therapy in Amateur and Professional Athletes: Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. 2018.
- Aboushanab et al. Cupping Therapy: An Overview from a Modern Medicine Perspective. 2018.
- Mehta et al. Cupping Therapy: A Prudent Remedy for a Plethora of Medical Ailments. 2015
- Al-Bedah et al. The Medical Perspective of Cupping Therapy: Effects and Mechanisms of Action. 2019