Therapeutic Cupping: A New (Yet Ancient) Technique
Cupping has been around for thousands of years but, thanks in part to athletes sporting large bruises during the 2016 Summer Olympics, has made its way into the public consciousness here in the US.
The practice of cupping is believed to have been around for the past 5000 years, with archaeologists finding evidence of this technique being used in ancient Egypt, China, and Greece. Although a few thousand years have passed, this practice is still a common medical intervention in traditional Chinese medicine to treat ailments ranging from colds and infections to hypertension and cancer.
So why are healthy athletes using this technique?
In physical therapy, therapeutic cupping is used to help patients and athletes alike to obtain many health benefits. From increased blood flow and improved immune function to decreased muscle tightness, athletes are sporting these telltale bruises in order to reap the benefits of therapeutic cupping.
As the name suggests, this therapy technique uses a combination of negative pressure and massage movements with the use of a suction device and a small silicone cup. “The cup is positioned over the treatment area, and a vacuum is created within the cup that draws the underlying tissue into the cup,” says Courtney Youst, DPT, OCS, one of Arthritis & Sports’ physical therapists that practices therapeutic cupping. “Depending on the needs of the patient, this cup can be left in place for several minutes or moved around over the treatment area. We can also vary the amount of suction used, and will sometimes perform other manual techniques simultaneously that compliment cupping.”
So what exactly does this accomplish? “The goal of therapeutic cupping is to decrease tissue restrictions between the layers of skin, fascia, and muscle,” says Courtney. “By creating suction within the cup, the layers of connective tissue and muscle underneath the skin are lifted and separated from each other. This extra space allows fluid to flow more easily between these layers, while also loosening the layers of tissue.” This can cause a host of beneficial effects for patients and athletes:
Increased lymphatic function Swelling and edema associated with injury and inflammation can hold toxins and excess fluids in the area. By separating the layers of tissue, the lymphatic system (our body’s natural filtration system) is able to work more easily, drawing hydration and blood into the area while draining excess fluids and toxins out of the area.
Increased muscle function By drawing fluid to the area, the fascia that attaches to muscles becomes more lubricated, allowing the motion to be less restricted. This applied suction also helps to soften tight muscles while toning attachments, allowing the patient’s muscles to function more smoothly and efficiently.
Improved range of motion Scar tissue and adhesions that form after surgery can make movements painful, as they cause the joint to shrink and tighten. Therapeutic cupping has been shown to help soften these tissues and make them more flexible and pliable, which helps to reduce pain and increase range of motion.
When properly performed, therapeutic cupping is fairly painless and safe. When suction is applied by the cups, there will be a gentle pulling sensation. Although dark, dramatic bruising is sure to pop up when Googling “cupping”, not all patients will be left sporting dark marks for days – less aggressive suction and movement of the cup can minimize both the intensity and duration of the marks.
Therapeutic cupping is a versatile technique that complements other physical therapy techniques and may be incorporated into your current treatment plan. While therapeutic cupping can enhance your therapy outcomes, remember that modalities are used to augment and enhance your overall physical therapy program. Your physical therapist will teach you exercises and strategies that will not only help treat your injury or condition but help you to prevent future problems.
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