Cupping is for more than making cool bruises on Michael Phelps.

Updated: May 6

Cupping is a tool used in traditional Chinese medicine to promote blood flow, break down connective tissue restriction and facilitate healing. Glass, plastic or silicone cups are used to create a suction, pulling the skin away from the muscle and fat to manipulate the connective tissue between them.

To understand why we use cupping as a modality, it is important to understand what connective tissue/fascia is and it's role in our body. Fascia is a thin layer of tissue that saran wraps our muscles, nerves, blood vessels and fat to our body. You know that clear tissue that surrounds raw chicken? That’s fascia. It allows our muscles, nerves, fat and blood vessels to move with out too much friction. When the fascia or connective tissue becomes restricted, and the muscles and nerves can no longer move easily or glide over each other, this can cause pain in the area (amongst other things).

The suction from cupping lifts the skin away from the muscle and fat, breaking down connective tissue restrictions so that it can heal properly. Think of connective tissue restriction being similar to scar tissue. When you have a really thick scar, and it's bound to the tissue underneath, the skin around it will not move as freely as it does in other areas of your body. This restriction can can cause pain, or depending on where the scar is, other symptoms. If you work on the scar tissue, by breaking it down so that it can heal properly, it will no longer restrict movement and would be less likely to be a source of pain.

You might be imagining big circular bruises all over someone and think that that’s cupping. You’d be right, that is part of it, but it’s not the only way to utilize cups. The bruises come from leaving cups in one area for a longer period of time, usually 5-10 minutes. At Lady Bird PT, we tend to do a mix of static and running cupping.

Running cupping is where lotion is applied to the area, then the cup is sealed to the skin and moved over the area of restriction. The intensity of suction is less than it would be if we were to just leave the cup for a period of time, this makes it less painful and less likely to bruise.

It’s also important to know that bruising isn’t a bad thing.

People often bruise more initially and then the more it’s done the less and less they bruise. This is because cupping will break down the NON-functioning blood vessels and when this happens you will get the increase in blood flow to the area. After several cupping sessions, you don’t have as many non functioning blood vessels so you will have less bruising.

We all know there are so many benefits to increased blood flow but the major one is it facilitates healing. Which in areas of pain, the increased blood flow and break down of the connective tissue restriction can be a game changer.

Another big benefit of using cups is that they can also be used at home. At Lady Bird PT, we often teach our patients how to use silicone suctions cups, the same one we use in treatment, on themselves to further their progress at home. We can also teach your partner how to cup you, if you struggle to perform this technique on yourself. Home management is a huge part of your recovery process, and cupping can be a great tool in managing your pain symptoms.

There are a number of ways we help you manage fascial and soft tissue restrictions at Lady Bird PT. Follow these links to learn more about dry needling and the pelvic floor.

If you're interested in a cupping set, this is the one we typically recommend to our patients! Want to find out if cupping is right for you, call us for a free 15 minute consultation at 512-766-2649 or contact us here.

Learn more about our author, Jessica Chastka, PT, DPT, WCS.

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