Cupping Therapy 101

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Cupping Therapy 101

You may remember it gaining fame during the 2016 Rio Olympics when Michael Phelps showed off circular bruises on his shoulders, back, and legs. Whether you know someone who has had it done, or have seen it through television and social media platforms, cupping has become a popular buzzword in recent years. At Complete Physical Therapy, we provide a wide range of hands-on manual interventions, including cupping! I’m here to give a brief overview of what it is, how it works, and explain ways it is used in physical therapy.

Although it may seem like a new trend, cupping has been around since ancient times. This alternative therapy began as early as 1500-1000 BC in Egyptian and Chinese cultures as a way to ease pain, cure illnesses, and accelerate healing. So what does it actually do? Cupping creates suction to the skin which increases circulation of blood flow to the superficial layers of skin and tissues. This increase in blood flow brings in oxygen and nutrients, as well as flushes out metabolic waste. In addition to stimulating healing, the gripping/suctioning of the cup can help to remodel scar tissue and reduce adhesions in the fascia. The lifting action of the suction helps to stretch and separate layers of tissues that might be thickened or adhered to each other.

Different types of cups can provide varying levels of suction. At Complete Physical Therapy, we use silicone cups which provide a light to medium suction. Although this level of pressure will not create enough suction to bruise you, it can still be effective in reaching deep tissues. There are three ways to utilize the cups — dynamic, flash, and static methods. Dynamic cupping involves moving the cup up/down or in circular/zig zag patterns. Flash cupping creates suction that is applied and removed quickly to improve circulation. Static cupping stays fixed to the targeted area for a longer period of time (3-5 minutes). Other types of cups, such as glass cups, can provide deeper suction (by means of fire or vacuum suction) and break the capillaries in the skin. This type of high pressure is what creates the circular bruises or markings often associated with traditional cupping.

When fascia is healthy, it allows the muscles to move freely. When unhealthy, fascia limits movement. Factors such as stress/overuse, sedentary behavior, dehydration, and poor posture can lead to stiffness and thickening of the fascia. In the physical therapy setting, cupping helps to lift the superficial tissues, improving fascia’s ability to slide and glide and maximize functional mobility.

Athletes and active individuals may also benefit from cupping to speed up recovery and decrease muscle soreness. Cupping is also handy for gastrointestinal motility and promotes regularity. The cup is applied to the abdomen and moved along the borders of the large intestine; moving up at the right side of the abdomen (ascending colon), across the top under the ribcage (transverse colon), down the left side (descending colon), creating a full sweep inward. This facilitates contraction of the smooth muscles of the digestive tract and secretion of fluids.

Cupping can be useful in post-surgical cases, too. Scar formation is normal, however too much scar tissue can result in the skin appearing and feeling thickened, tight, and/or firm. Cupping is helpful in reshaping and remodeling this fibrous tissue. Examples include incisions from orthopedic surgeries, such as joint replacements, as well as other invasive surgeries, such as cesarean deliveries or mastectomies.

Cupping is also commonly performed by massage therapists, athletic trainers, chiropractors, and acupuncturists. At Complete Physical Therapy, we believe in using a variety of myofascial release techniques, including hands-on and tool-assisted methods selected to best suit your individual needs. Call us at 402-482-0006 or email at to learn more.