What is cupping?
Cupping, also known as myofascial decompression, is a technique used to promote increased blood flow in an area and to reduce pain. Cupping comes from traditional Chinese medicine, where it was used to stimulate the flow of qi (vital energy flowing through the body) and remove blockages of this energy.
How is cupping used in physical therapy?
In physical therapy, cupping can be done with silicone cups, air vacuum cups (glass or plastic), or wet cups (fire is used to create a negative air pressure). We could break these down a bit more, but that is the gist of it. At Beyond Movement PT, we use glass air vacuum cups and silicone cups on our clients depending on the exact purpose and body part. The silicone cups are easily moved while proving a decompressive force. The glass cups will provide a stronger decompression, but will be left in place for several minutes (typically 2-5 minutes).
What are the benefits of cupping?
There is not a ton of research out there on cupping. Most of the research has been done on all various types of myofascial treatments (i.e. cupping, scraping, foam rolling, etc.). You will likely see the same types of benefits for all sorts of those treatments. Cupping is unique because it has the ability to decompress tissue. The other forms of myofascial treatments involve compressing the soft tissues. Cupping is typically performed on localized spots, however as mentioned before the silicone cups can be moved around while decompressing tissue.
From the courses we have taken and from other sources on cupping, here are the expected benefits:
Reduced pain of muscles and tendons
Mobilize scar tissue (“break up adhesions”)
Loosens up more superficial connective tissue
Improved blood flow in the treatment area
Reduces inflammatory markers (I cannot say that this is a long lasting benefit, but there is at least one study that claims significant reductions in inflammatory markers of treated muscles)
Increased amounts of cytokines (the same study as above notes increased levels of cytokines, which promote healing and relaxation)
Improved mobility (I put this one last because a cup by itself cannot improve mobility, however cupping can reduce the threat of movement to the body and thus you may be able to stretch or mobilize your body parts with less discomfort or resistance)
What are the side effects of cupping?
The most notable side effect is a circular bruise left on the skin after treatment. This bruise will typically last 7-14 days depending on the person and the treatment.
With wet cupping (aka open flame cupping), there is risk for burning and infections. We do not perform wet cupping at Beyond Movement PT as there seems to be no additional benefit and there is definitely an increased risk of negative effects.
At Beyond Movement PT, we use cupping on a semi-regular basis for treating muscle and tendon pain. It has been a helpful tool for our clients, however it is not the only thing that can work to make you feel better. It is a passive treatment (among many). We do our best to encourage ACTIVE treatments as this is what is most effective. That being said, sometimes we need to use passive modalities, such as cupping, dry needling, massage, taping, or flossing in order to create neural adaptations that allow us to more effectively perform active treatments.
Corey Hall, PT, DPT