It’s almost impossible to miss the large purple circles present on swimmers’s shoulders at this summer’s Games – and the whole nation has been buzzing about why cupping, what’s the purpose behind the therapy, and why so many athletes are sporting the tell-tale signs of the recovery method. Now that the US has dominated the water events, interest will only continue to build around cupping and how or why it affects the team’s stellar performance and recovery.
You’ve probably been introduced to cupping at some point in time, even if you do not use the therapy with your own patients. Here’s a chance to review basics about the therapeutic technique and examine whether or not your patients could benefit from the treatment style.
Cupping’s background and integration into holistic medicine
This ancient Chinese bodywork technique focuses on increasing blood flow and separating layers of tissue and fascia to ignite faster recovery from injury, swelling or muscular pain. Even though the therapy itself is unique to recovery treatments, cupping’s goal is to clear the body of toxins and improve mobility and the ability to heal quickly. That’s why high-performance athletes turn to the practice (with a new twist) before events–as seen by Phelps–because any tiny natural performance enhancement can mean the difference between gold and silver for the athletes in Rio.
Even though cupping can help treat asthma, common colds, neck pain and gastrointestinal pain, its most common use is for back pain, which is why back cupping is most commonly practiced. Cupping is also common practice alongside acupuncture, as the methods compliment one another. According to traditional Chinese cupping technique, there are several ying and yang meridians that reside on the back and can be stimulated via cupping. Once these meridians are stimulated, internal energy is released throughout the entire body and toxins are dispelled.
Contemporary chiropractors, sports medicine professionals and athletic trainers use the term “MFD” or “myofascial decompression” to describe the fusion process between traditional methods and new techniques. Similar to the way you would use your hands or a soft tissue instrument, with myofascial decompression you’re able to take the athlete through a range of motion while applying the cup to help treat injuries and improve mobility. But in contrast to classic massage or IASTM where you create a positive pressure with the instrument or your hands, the cups allow you to move through this range of motion, while creating a negative pressure on the tissue. This negative pressure lifts and separates the fascia and tissue, creating a release and apparent added benefits with regards to recovery and performance.
Two methods of cupping
If you are considering practicing cupping, you will likely choose between two main methods: “fire” cupping and manual suction cupping. Fire cupping requires a practitioner: using a cotton ball doused in sterile alcohol, you light the cotton ball on fire and quickly put it under the glass cup, creating a vacuum once the cup is placed on the patient’s skin (without the cotton ball!). Manual suction cupping relies on a pump to create the same vacuum between glass and skin and can be practiced by yourself or a patient using a kit. There are variations between techniques and practice among practitioners.
While there’s no definitive proof that cupping provides the toxin-releasing, recovery-enhancing benefits that athletes and other patients hope for during the practice, there are a handful of studies that suggest the placebo effect positively impacts the patient and performance. This comprehensive study examines past research and seeks to draw overall conclusions about the therapy–it’s a great place to start for more information, especially concerning which physical illnesses and conditions can be positively treated via cupping.
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