Cupping dates back to 1550 B.C., but it has recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since Michael Phelps hit the Olympic scene with the tell-tale cupping marks last year. Since then lots of misinformation and confusing half-truths about cupping have unfortunately circulated around the internet. “Cupping”, like “massage”, encompasses a wide range of modalities used for very different purposes. Depending on a practitioner’s license, some of it is within the scope of practice and some of it is not. Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners generally have the widest scope of practice and can perform everything from fire cupping, wet cupping (bloodletting), needling and magnetic cupping. Massage therapists, like me, can incorporate cupping very effectively into our work, but the important thing to understand is that it is a completely different kind of cupping than the stationary fire cupping most people think of when they hear “cupping”. What we do is moving cupping, and it can be an incredibly impactful complement to the massage (without the red marks!).
Moving cupping for massage therapists, according to the law in Texas, must mimic the movements of massage in general, as it is just another tool for the “manipulation of soft tissue”. In other words, the intent is to facilitate the same types of releases we are aiming for in massage. We use oil on the skin and slowly glide the suctioned cup across the skin in order to achieve the desired effect. This does not leave a mark on the skin. The type and size of the cup, as well as the amount of suction the therapist allows, will yield different results. In general, moving cupping increases circulation of blood and lymph, increases pliability in the tissue layers and engages the fascia in order to release adhesions. Essentially the cup creates a vacuum, lifting the tissues as opposed to pressing down into them. This alleviates all pressure from the area, including the pressure of gravity itself, creating more space in between fascia and muscle tissue and in between cells, allowing fluid to move more easily. The pressure on the nerves is also decreased.
In my practice, I use the cups in two ways: for myofascial deep tissue release and for lymphatic drainage. I use silicone cups of a few different sizes for the deep tissue releases, as they can provide the stronger suction that is needed in order to reach the deeper layers of tissue. Often when a client presents with a decrease in mobility, the problem is at least partially due to restrictions in the fascial layer, and the suction, lift and movement of the cup can assist in breaking up these sticky spots. It’s like skin rolling with a little added suction. Generally, the result is an increase in ease of movement. Clients say that it also feels good because it literally takes the pressure off of their achy spots. For lymphatic drainage, I use a small glass bell which offers a much more delicate suction, as the lymphatic system is very superficial. (See photo below for a general idea – although I do not use cups on the face.) After using my hands for MLD,
if there is particularly problematic swelling I will often follow the lines of the lymphatic channels with the bell very gently and slowly in order to further encourage lymph flow. One of my clients has fondly named this process “the edema kiss”. 🙂 The cup not only creates space for the fluid to flow but it also stimulates the contraction of the lymphangia (see my posts on the lymphatic system and MLD for a deeper explanation).
Other massage therapists probably use this tool differently, but this is the way I have found yields results for my clients. It also feels good! I don’t do stand-alone sessions of cupping by itself and rarely does my cupping comprise more than a quarter of the massage time. However, moving cupping has provided me with a powerful little complement to my massage practice. Hopefully this has clarified what “cupping” is and isn’t, at least in my practice. If you are interested in cupping, it’s best to ask your practitioner since, depending on the training and license received, their offerings may vary.
“Introduction to Cupping: A Deep Tissue and Lymphatic Drainage Tool”, Michelle Burns, Holistic Healing Arts