Even if you've never heard the term 'cupping' before, you can probably picture Michael Phelps walking around the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil with dark, black-and-blue circles on his shoulder. Here, we'll break down the performance trend, from cupping benefits to incorporating cupping into your routine.
What Is Cupping, Anyway?
So, those black-and-blue circles you're seeing all over athletes these days? They come from an ancient Chinese therapy now known as 'cupping,' which involves placing suction cup-like structures on the skin to help combat injuries and even illnesses, says Allison Heffron, D.C., chiropractor and licensed acupuncturist at Physio Logic in Brooklyn, NY.
How does cupping work? Well, think of it as basically the opposite of a massage. When you get a massage, the therapist uses compression in order to help loosen up your tissues. “Cupping does the opposite, and pulls things apart," explains Heffron. "Instead of compressing blood vessels, you pull tissues apart in order to get more blood flow into the area.”
You don’t need to be an Olympic gold medalist to experience the benefits of cupping, however. Even everyday athletes and those training for races can earn the physical pay-offs. So, let’s break down whether the alternative medicine method is right for you and your body.
What are the Cupping Benefits?
While many researchers say cupping therapy needs some more solid science to prove the benefits, a few scientific reviews support its effects on pain management, with no serious side effects.
As for who it works best for, Heffron says everyone from those with respiratory infections to constipation to migraines to musculoskeletal issues can gain some healing advantages of the treatment. Lots of athletes get it done to address muscular issues. And while the area of the body that each individual gets cupped depends on the person’s sport, common spots include the sides of the spine, from the neck to the low back, as well as the quads, hamstrings, or even wrists.
What are the Cons to Cupping?
The biggest one is what you probably saw on Phelps—dark spots caused by fluid getting drawn toward the skin’s surface, Heffron explains. “Whether you get those marks depends on the patient, the severity of what’s being treated, as well as the intensity of the cupping,” she says. In other words, while one person might get some serious dark circles, cupping might not leave any marks on someone else.
Also, it’s hard to say that cupping feels good. For some people, it can be painful, leaving a sort of unpleasant burning sensation. “Some people say it’s like sandpaper rubbing on your skin or a sunburn,” Heffron says. “In certain areas, though, it can feel really good, like a strange, deep massage that helps you decompress. But it depends on the area and how someone perceives pain—everybody feels it differently.” Heffron says spots like the hamstrings, calves, and traps are some of the more severe sore spots, while the low back tends to feel least painful.
Keep in mind, if you do feel discomfort, it only lasts during the cupping session itself—not afterward. “It’s not like a bruise you get when you hit your shin on a desk,” Heffron says. “The blood rushes to the surface during cupping, but the pain goes away after.”
How Do I Decide if Cupping is Right for Me?
Heffron says cupping is safe for most people, except those who are seriously sick and physically weak from it. Someone with a chronic health condition or a blood disorder might also want to skip it.
“If you’re having any pain, muscle strain, injured tissues or joints, or constant headaches, or if you simply feel a lot of tension in an area, you may want to pursue cupping,” Heffron suggests. If you’re feeling particularly tight from tough workouts or training, cupping could be a good option for helping you feel better. And while it might not work for everyone, considering there are little to no side effects, it could be worth a shot.
Just make sure you talk to your practitioner about what’s going on in your body so they can help determine if cupping is right for you and even better, if it will actually help.
How Do I Find a Specialist Who Performs Cupping?
Heffron suggests turning to the best review forum out there: Google. Search cupping therapy in your area and check out what others are saying about the place that’s offering it as a service. While physical therapy centers might do cupping, Heffron also says acupuncturists typically learn different types of cupping and gain a deeper knowledge of what will best suit your condition. So, it’s worth a try to talk to someone with an acupuncture license.