The Summer Olympics are here, and, as usual, we’ve also revved up our national obsession with Michael Phelps’ training regimen. In 2008, commentators couldn’t stop gushing over how much food he consumed. 12,000 calories a day? How is this possible? This summer we only had to look skin deep as Phelps’ back and shoulder displayed what one commentator referred to as red “crop circles.” Those crop circles, though, are actually the result of an traditional Chinese therapy called cupping, a form of therapy and healing used to combat muscle soreness.
This summer isn’t the first time cupping has been a topic of media conversation. Several years ago, celebs like Jennifer Aniston and Victoria Beckham appeared in the public eye with the now familiar cupping marks. In fact, Gwyneth Paltrow caused a stir at a movie premiere back in 2004 when her dress revealed red circles across her upper back. With benefits including increased blood flow and pain relief, it’s no surprise that elite athletes are also embracing the treatment.
So, how does it work? The basic premise behind cupping is that the therapy works by increasing blood flow and releasing toxins from the muscle tissue. The practitioner — usually an acupuncturist or doctor of Chinese medicine — uses glass or plastic cups to create a suction effect on the skin. Because the cups create a powerful pull on the skin, surface capillaries rupture, which causes redness. These ruptures also trigger an injury response in the body, which stimulates the immune system and encourages quick healing of muscles, thus aiding in pain relief. Unlike a bruise, which comes from impact, cupping marks are actually the result of negative pressure. The result: increased blood flow to the surface of the skin and the appearance of a circular hickey.
The basic premise behind cupping is that the therapy works by increasing blood flow and releasing toxins from the muscle tissue.
I’m neither a movie star nor a superhuman athlete, but as an active mom of three young children, going to the grocery store can often feel like an Olympic event. Since the birth of my third baby twelve months ago, I’ve been battling some upper back and shoulder pain. I’ve had good luck with chiropractic care, but I’m always down to test drive a new natural healing method, and with a recent flare up of pain and discomfort in my neck, I was game to try something different.
I arrived at Pacific Bridge Wellness to find a peaceful and professional environment. The experience itself was reminiscent of a spa service, right down to the soothing ocean soundtrack and dim lighting. I disrobed, laid on a comfortable massage table, and covered myself with a soft blanket. Dr. Bunch, the practitioner administering the treatment, rolled in a small cart that held about 20 plastic cups, a hand pump, and a container of coconut oil.
He began by rubbing my back with coconut oil in order to increase suction and adherence of the cups to my skin. Dr. Bunch noted that he prefers plastic cups (as opposed to the glass cups common in fire cupping) because the plastic cup allows him more control over the strength of the suction, thus creating a more comfortable and beneficial cupping experience for his patients. He began the treatment with “running cupping.” He placed two cups on my upper back, one between my shoulder blade and my spine on the right side and another mirroring it on the left side. He inserted the hand pump into a valve at the top of each cup to remove the air and create a vacuum seal. The pressure of this suction was lighter because he was able to move the cups up and down my back, a sensation that was very similar to that of a deep tissue massage.
Next, he began stationary cupping — this is the method favored by Olympic athletes where cups are secured to the back for five to ten minutes at a time. Dr. Bunch proceeded to apply cups across my back and shoulders: 16 cups in total. For the earlier part of the treatment I was able to speak comfortably. However, as the number of cups increased, so did the suction. By the end, the pressure across my entire back was so strong that I felt as though someone was pressing a heavy board across my back. I didn’t feel any pain, but the intensity of the sensation was distracting, and I needed to focus on my breathing.
The actual suction sensation was something akin to what I imagine it would feel like if you held the nozzle of a shop vac to my back. After about five minutes of cupping, I felt some discomfort, but no pain. I found that I was able to relax into the pressure, although I’m sure after ten minutes I would have been counting down to the end.
The removal of the cups was practically euphoric. As each cup was released from my skin I felt lighter, clearer, and more relaxed than I had when I arrived. Dr. Bunch massaged by back with liniment as I melted into the table.
The removal of the cups was practically euphoric.
I have to admit that my bliss was somewhat abated when I realized that the skin on my back was raised in swollen red, circular nodules. Despite my angry stegosaurus exterior, I was still comfortable. As the day progressed, the swelling went down and my skin relaxed into what are the now familiar Michael Phelps-ian crop circles. Twenty-four hours later, I still feel some residual muscle soreness from treatment, similar to the soreness you’d experience after a massage, but the ache I’d been battling in my shoulders is completely gone. I have more mobility in my neck, and I still feel relaxed and rejuvenated.
Recent commentary on the practice of cupping notes that the ancient tradition still lacks validity as a healing method primarily because the medical research around it is minimal. Skeptics, and even cupping recipients, question whether or not the results are simply a placebo effect. Based on my experience, I’m inclined to believe that there’s something to this suction technique for both pain relief and general wellness. Aside from the surface blemishes, which can last for up to 10 days, the treatment has minimal side effects. While it may inhibit your desire to don your new off the shoulder dress, it’s not risky.
The verdict: I’m with Team USA. Cupping for the win.
Medical Note: People who have ulcers, a tendency toward blood clots, or bleed easily should consult with a physician before cupping. Cupping is also not recommended for pregnant women.