If you watched the 2016 summer Olympics, you might have noticed a number of athletes with large red circles in various places on their bodies. Believe it or not, those marks weren’t bruises or the aftermath of a rabid octopus encounter, but the result of an alternative medicine practice known as cupping.
Many Westerners are skeptical when it comes to holistic or alternative therapies. But if an Olympian claims a few gold medals while sporting cupping marks? Well, that’s a different story. I mean, it’s gotta be helpful if Michael Phelps is doing it, right? Sign me up now for Tokyo 2020. (Kidding. Unless they open some kind of Netflix binge-watching division between now and then.)
Since then, I’ve noticed an increasing number of athletes on social media utilizing cupping and even on a local level among fellow gym-goers. Those red spots are just popping up all over the place lately. But what benefits does this practice really have to offer? Is is safe? Painful? What exactly do they do with those cups? I decided to book myself an appointment and find out.
What is cupping?
During my session, I learned about the practice of cupping from the lady making the magic happen, Sara Komadina, licensed massage therapist (LMT) and certified cupping massage therapist (CMT).
Cupping is an ancient form of negative pressure therapy that utilizes suction to generate blood circulation, promote cellular repair and cleanse the body of toxins. As suction is applied to the outer layer of skin with the cups, the underlying tissue is lifted away from the muscles, breaking up muscular adhesions and creating room for fresh blood flow. The circular marks left behind, sometimes confused for bruises, are a simply the result of blood vessel expansion during pressure change.
“The practice is somewhere between 2,000-5,000 years old,“ said Sara. While cupping is often associated with Chinese medicine (and still widely practiced in many Asian cultures), traces of the practice range as far back as ancient Rome and Egypt. “There are hieroglyphics of Egyptians doing cupping,” she explained.
Types of Cupping
Today, there are two main categories of cupping: Wet and dry cupping. Dry cupping simply involves suction, while wet cupping is often a combination of suction and medicinal bleeding. Of the two, dry cupping is the more predominant method used in the U.S. with wet cupping actually outlawed in some states.
Traditional dry cupping, also known as fire cupping, is done with glass cups along with a flammable substance (alcohol, herbs, etc.) that is placed on a small tissue or cotton ball and set on fire beneath the cup momentarily. As the flame goes out, it creates a vacuum effect that suctions the cup to the skin. Another modern form of cupping done is performed with plastic cups that utilize a pump to suction air and fasten the cups to the surface of the skin without flame.
“You tend to see fire cupping more in Chinese medicine and acupuncture. That’s more about energy flow and chi,” explained Sara, who is trained in both forms of dry cupping. “The fire cupping has massive suction with it, because you’re taking all the oxygen out, so there’s a lot less control. I’m trained in that too, but it’s not as fluid and quick as the contemporary cupping is. What I do is still going to open up energy flow, but I’m being more intentional about soft tissue [the muscles, tendons, ligaments], because that’s why people come to me, with an ache or pain.”
What are the benefits?
Common complaints she receives from clients are tightness in the back and shoulders. “Connective tissue is a huge culprit to pain, aches, lack of range of motion [and other] mobility issues,” said Sara. “People are really surprised when I let them know that the things they do in their daily life [affect] their quality of life.” Everything from long hours at a desk, bed pillows, sleeping positions, shoes or the way someone sits in a car can create soft tissue imbalances.
Since its appearance in the 2016 Olympics, many athletes have sought out cupping as a tool for muscle recovery or fitness plateaus. “If you’ve got all these adhesions locking down on your muscles, then it’s not going to have any room to grow,” Sara explained. With her practice based out of a CrossFit gym, Sara works with athletes on a regular basis. “Almost all of my clients that come regularly have hit [personal records] out there time and time again,” she continued, “I have clients that couldn’t stick their arm up [overhead] that can now get their arm up.”
Those aren’t the only reasons people seek out cupping. Sara also treats clients for a wide range of complaints, including wrinkle and cellulite reduction, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fasciitis and frozen shoulder syndrome. “I have some people who come to me strictly for their anxiety,” she said. “I also do a lot of scar recovery for people who have really bad scarring. There are a ton of reasons you’d do cupping on someone.”
My Cupping Session:
My session was focused mainly on restoring mobility in areas where I had tension from exercise and scoliosis. Sara began with traditional massage techniques, kneading the muscles by hand to identify areas where my body was carrying knots or tension. She then took one of the cups and lightly suctioned it to my skin, moving it briskly back and forth across the area to begin breaking up muscular adhesions beneath the surface.
It felt unusual as the cup moved around in this way, but not painful; it was a strangely interesting sensation as the skin beneath the cup was gently lifted then released as the cup glided around. At times it felt ticklish, like when she quickly ran it up and down my quads. In areas with more muscular tension, the sensation was less comfortable and more intense. Not painful, but like the tissue beneath was stiff and less inclined to be lifted and moved around (similar the discomfort when a knotted muscle is deeply massaged; sensitivity to the pressure being applied to a tight area followed by the relief afterward when some of that tension is released).
Also interestingly, in some areas, there were audible little crackling noises (like the faint “snap, crackle and pop” associated with Rice Krispies cereal) as the cup ran along sections of muscle particularly dense with adhesions, like my shoulders.
When she completed this process on the front half of my body, she had me turn over to focus on the back half. After repeating the steps of massage and fluid movement of a cup, she began setting cups on specific regions of my back and applied a deeper level of suction to fix them into place. As she pumped the air out, I felt my skin lift up beneath the cup with a more intense pressure than when she was moving the cup back and forth. The sensation was quite intense as the cups first adhered the surface; it was not painful, but it also wasn’t particularly comfortable.
If I’m being totally transparent, it reminded me of the times growing up when my brothers and I got in trouble for playing with mom’s vacuum; chasing each other around and trying to leave suction marks with the hand tool attachment. But as each cup continued to sit in place, the feeling of pressure began to subside until it hardly felt like the cups were there at all. She continued placing cups until my back was almost completely covered in them and then allowed me to rest for an extended period of time.
As unusual as the pictures appear, this was probably the most relaxing portion of the massage. As the pressure from the cups continued to dissipate, I felt quite serene on the table. At one point, I actually began to feel sleepy because my body was tranquil in my environment. After a certain amount of time passed, Sara released the air from the cups, removing them one by one from my skin and I felt a gentle release of pressure as they came off. She then briefly massaged my back again and it felt wonderful as she rubbed the skin and muscles down one more time.
After my massage was over, I felt loose, relaxed and reenergized. She instructed me to take in plenty of water and to avoid heavy exercise or activity the rest of the day (because putting additional stress on my body would be counterproductive following our session relieving tension). I did leave with some red circles of my own that day from where she allowed the cups to rest on my skin, but they didn’t feel particularly sensitive or different from the rest of my skin; within a week they faded and disappeared entirely.
Since my initial experience, I’ve gone back for four more cupping sessions with Sara. Each time she tailored our time to focus on whatever area of my body needed attention. On one occasion she focused on my right ankle, where I had suffered a severe sprain and ligament strain two weeks prior, to help dissipate bruising and ease tightness in surrounding ligaments.
Cost and Where to Find It:
As cupping therapy is picking up popularity in recent years, it’s becoming more available on a local level. Some larger chain spas have added cupping to their list of available services along with individual massage therapists offering it in their personal practices. Even certain gyms (Crossfit or traditional ones) are bringing a massage therapist on board to give members more direct access to massage and cupping services. Rates for cupping massages are often within the same range as pricing for traditional massage therapy, which can be around or just over a dollar a minute per session.
I was in no way compensated in order to try out or promote Sara as a massage therapist. I simply believe in sharing my own positive experiences in hopes that they might resonate with someone else on their fitness journey.
All writing copyright © 2017 Rachel Elise Weems Woods. All images of myself or cupping equipment are copyright © 2017 Rachel Elise Weems Woods with certain images of other clients shared with permission by Sara Komadina.