Everyone is talking about it: the big dark red circles on the shoulders and backs of American gymnasts and swimmers at the Olympics. Just how big are those mosquitos in Brazil?
They are actually marks that can be left after cupping. Cups – usually made from silicone, plastic, or glass – are put on the skin and the air is drawn out, creating suction. Despite the spotlight suddenly cast on cupping, Dr. Adam Perlman, executive director for Duke Integrative Medicine (as quoted on cbsnews.com) explained that this is hardly a new thing. "Cupping has probably been around as long as traditional Chinese medicine has been around -- a couple thousand years."
The cups do what human hands can’t easily do: lift tissue. As massage therapists or Chinese medicine practitioners, we can press down into soft tissue or encourage it to slide laterally but we can’t pull it up. That’s where cups can be handy.
Why does anyone, and in particular an elite athlete, use cupping? There are several reasons:
Speed up muscle recovery from extreme workouts or competitions (like the Olympics)
Lift congested / adhered tissue so the layers of tissue can move freely
Move fluids (such as lymph and blood) when the normal transport system gets bogged down
Improve the flow of qi (life energy) when it is impeded
If you look closely, the marks on the athletes are on body parts like shoulders and backs that are critical to excelling in their sport. Other applications for cupping outside of athletic performance are to soften and release scar tissue, improve digestion, decrease inflammation, reduce bruising, and improve energy stagnation.
Olympic coverage has created quite a stir about the marks left by cupping. “What the mark really is," Dr. Robert Glatter told CBS News, "is a tissue injury to the skin. [Cupping] causes blood vessels to dilate and increases blood flow." Glatter is an emergency physician at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital and is in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics.
There is a lot of debate about whether to call the marks bruises. They don’t color like bruises and they don’t dissipate like bruises. They can be a range of colors from light red to deep purple. Internal medicine physician and certified personal trainer Dr. Michael Smith told CBS News, “The suction pulls the tight muscles and stretches the fascia, the connective tissue around the muscles, and in effect, allows blood vessels to expand. The theory is that the increased blood flow speeds healing.”
It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days for the marks to dissipate. Practitioners often explain that the color indicates just how congested the affected area is.
The most traditional method – called fire cupping – uses a flame to heat the air inside a glass cup the second before it’s applied to the skin. Many massage therapists who use cupping don’t do fire cupping because of restrictions on open flames in many workplaces or because of the risk of burning either themselves or their clients.
Freed Bodyworks practitioners Karen Culpepper and Kelly Bowers offer cupping, as a component of a session or as a complete cupping session. Before any session, they will discuss the potential for marks left on your body and as well as potential for benefits to the tissue. The marks result when the cups are left on for an extended period of time. Both Karen and Kelly are very knowledgeable and will only leave you looking like you’ve been attacked by a rogue octopus if that’s what you’ve agreed upon.
If you would like to try a new method of opening up dense tissue and feel like an Olympic athlete (without all those bothersome years of training and sacrifice) book a session with Karen or Kelly to either include cups in your next session or request an all-cupping session.