Understanding the ‘Cupping’ Craze

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Written By: Carley Sabatini, PT, DPT

Physical Therapist

Three years have passed since Michael Phelps sported the, almost signature, dark round spots across his shoulders and back at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He gained lots of media attention outside of his performance from everyone excitedly pondering what these spots were, what are the benefits of this ‘new’ technique commonly known as cupping. Over the years this technique has been implemented into out-patient Physical Therapy clinics across the nation, but the question is still often asked of what it is and how can we as athletes, as individuals, benefit from this.

While cupping is the more easily recognizable term, the real technique is referred to as myofascial decompression. This technique can be used for several different orthopedic and neurological conditions in the physical therapy setting. There are various types of cupping techniques, however most frequently used in the clinic is known as “dry cupping.” Plastic, glass, or ceramic cups can be used, as well as a handheld pump to create a negative pressure system. Cups can remain on the skin from 1-20 minutes and can be used in a static or dynamic way, depending on the goal of treatment.

How does this technique work?

A specific tissue, called fascia, is a layer of connective tissue between the skin and muscle fibers. In non-injured tissue, the fascia allows for smooth gliding between the skin and muscle, however in injured tissue, fascial adhesions can form. This is a type of scar tissue that forms and connects two tissues that are usually not together. These adhesions can form due to injury, surgery, or improper movement patterns, and can significantly restrict movement. When cups are placed on the skin, they form a negative pressure system, forcing superficial capillaries to leak, forcing an increased blood flow into surrounding tissues. This technique allows for increased blood flow, natural healing factors, and nitric oxide release for proper nutrition of muscle tissue. This process also helps to stimulate A-delta fibers, A-beta fibers, and C-fibers to inhibit the pain response.

Who can benefit from myofascial decompression?

Common conditions that can benefit from myofascial decompression therapy include plantar fasciitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, myofascial trigger points, muscle injuries, post-surgical sites, and chronic neck and back pain. Benefits of myofascial decompression include decrease in pain, increase in range of motion, inflammation reduction, and promoting tissue healing.


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