What is Cupping?

Cupping is one of the oldest forms of Chinese medicine for releasing toxins from body tissues and organs. Mainly in modern western physical therapy treatment, the idea behind cupping uses one or multiple plastic, silicone, or glass cups to create a vacuum seal on the skin creating a change in our myofascial tissue.

So what does cupping mean for us in physical therapy? Cupping can benefit us in many ways. It can release tissue tension, reduce inflammation and pain, improve circulation and blood flow to a targeted area, and can aid in facilitating the physiological healing process.

There are a few different methods of cupping and a few different ways that the cups can be applied to the patient. Dry cupping is the most common form of cupping used in my clinical practice and in western medicine. Dry cupping is when one or multiple cups are placed over the skin and a mechanic suction is applied to create an upward stretch or pull on the skin and fascia associated below. These cups are typically left on for a few minutes and blood rises to the surface creating a bruised or reddened appearance under the cup.

With dry cupping, there is also a sliding technique that can be utilized. Sliding cupping is used to treat more than one specific area where the cups are suctioned gently and then slid over an area of fascia.

Another version of cupping that is used in Chinese medicine is called wet cupping. This involves a scalpel and bleeding into the cup on the surface of the skin. However, this technique is not widely practiced in modern physical therapy, or by myself ever, so we will not go into detail on that.

From my education and experience, cupping can be utilized in treatment to help break through some of those plateaus you may be stuck at with range of motion or stiffness. It may also help in regaining some function with reduced pain, or give you another thing to try if you have exhausted all other options.

Some common conditions or areas I have treated include:

Neck: migraines, headaches, tension in the neck and shoulders.

Low back: generalized stiffness, post-surgical pain, osteoarthritis, pain in buttocks causing sciatica

Shoulder: post-surgical pain, arthritis, contusion injuries, rotator cuff injuries.

Calf: improved calf mobility for running and walking.

One of my previous patients, Kyle, had this to say about his treatment: “With cupping and other strength treatments I was able to return to my junior college baseball team playoffs and help lead the team to the national championship. From there I was able to compete without pain in my shoulder, win a junior college player of the year award, and then sign with a Division 1 baseball team the following season.”

Cupping is a relatively low-risk modality and treatment type. Research behind cupping is very mixed, but there is evidence that cupping can cause relaxation on a systemic level which can release endogenous opioids in our brain and lead to an improvement in pain control. Other research suggests that cupping aids in promoting circulation of blood causing a healing effect in the tissues below with removal of toxins and waste from the body. While reducing toxins and waste from muscle tissue, our body is able to begin accelerating the healing process and begin normalizing muscle or joint function.

Information and research in this blog is taken from a previous continuing education course through Select Medical, and from the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine.

Want to learn more about cupping treatments at The Center? Contact Matt directly here.

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