So…What is cupping?
There are a couple of different types, but it comes down to ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ cupping. ‘Wet’ cupping is where you cut the skin before applying the cups so that blood is drawn up into the cup from the skin and is less commonly practiced. I don’t and won’t do that. ‘Dry’ cupping simply suctions the skin up into the silicone cup. It leaves temporary ‘marks’ where the cups were placed but they mostly fade in a few days.
I’ve heard of cupping but where does it come from?
It’s derived from Eastern medicine and has been used in various forms for centuries, for a large range of medical conditions and we’ve ‘westernised’ it for both sports and therapeutic treatment. Most people first became aware of it from the Olympics and noticing the ‘marks’ on swimmers backs and shoulders.
What does cupping do?
Cupping is reported to have a few different effects.
- Reduces pain.
- Anti-inflammatory effects.
- Increased blood circulation.
- Reduce cellular adhesions and revitalize fascia and connective tissue.
- Reduction in blood pressure.
- It is also reported that cupping has positive effects on the immune system and the blood itself, but as ever, these are controversial.
From my own experiences of being cupped, it improves my pain significantly. Using just one example, I had chronic tennis elbow in both elbows, I couldn’t even pick up a cup of tea without pain, so myself and another sports therapist did an experiment. My left elbow we dry needled down the forearm muscles and my right elbow we cupped down the forearm muscles. While neither treatment is curative, both have reduced my pain significantly so that I could rehab without pain.
How does it work?
This is the interesting bit…we have theories about why it works and reduces pain, and my initial thought was that it was probably due to the pain-gate mechanism (Melzac & Wall, 1965) which we’re fairly sure is what massage activates…Simply put, you bang your elbow, you rub it, it feels better for a short time…However, the pain relief from cupping lasts for rather longer and pain-gate is not known last that long, so it’s been theorised that it could from;
- Improved blood circulation and removal of toxins & waste products which reduce inflammation reducing stimulation of the nerves that transmit the pain signals.
- We also know that the body can be stimulated to create its own opioids and can produce its own gabapentin, giving long-lasting pain relief.
- Stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system; the bodies brake pedal.
- Research has found cupping to affect the immune system; first by ‘irritating the immune system by causing temporary inflammation, which activates an immune response and attracts immune ’products’ that positively affect the area and strengthen immunity.
- There is a theory that we all have a ‘pain dial’ called Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control (DNIC). Some peoples are high and others low and some theorise that cupping can affect this theoretical ‘dial’ for the better.
- Removal of oxidants from the area leading to decreased oxidative stress.
- Positive biomechanical changes in the tissue and decreasing pain thresholds of that area. **This is the one that resonates most with my own experiences of cupping**
There are MANY more theories as to why this treatment is effective, and are not limited to ‘blood detoxification theory’, ‘reflex zone theory’, ‘nitric oxide theory’, ‘activation of the immune system theory’ or maybe all of them together? Ultimately, we don’t yet know for sure. It even be placebo effect, though I find this unlikely based on my own experiences.
Research has been targeted to idiopathic (meaning unknown cause) pain conditions including fibromyalgia, and auto immune diseases which have all shown positive results to cupping. A study in 2005 found that cupping reduced markers for rheumatoid arthritis in trial participants.
While the effects of what cupping does and how it achieves them are the subject of much debate, that cupping promotes well-being is something I think we can all agree on. I was originally underwhelmed when I did the course last year but its effect on me personally have changed my outlook and enthusiasm for it. For most of my clients, I make it part of their sports massage and get great feedback from them too.