Suction cups can increase blood flow, and could be one way of providing pain relief after an injury.
WHEN I INJURED my back late last year, cupping was not at the top of my list for therapies. I knew I wanted massage, a visit to the chiropractor and probably acupuncture too. While I have some silicone cups I use at home when I feel sore, particularly in my forearms or quads, until recently I had not been cupped professionally.
But during a visit to my chiropractor, Dr. Karlie Causey, to work on my back, she asked whether I was OK trying cupping on my back. I didn’t care what she did, as long as it made my back feel better, which it did.
I had been curious, anyway, to know more about cupping, and how and why it works.
Cupping looks more painful than it is, though it can be very intense. Traditional cupping therapy is used in Chinese medicine to move blood and energy flow. You can use glass cups or plastic, and with heat or a pump, suction is created in the cup and pulls at your tissue.
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The suction, particularly if left in one place, leaves circular, red marks on your skin. Swimmer Michael Phelps was often seen with red cupping marks during the Rio Olympics last year.
In traditional Chinese medicine, cupping is used to treat ailments ranging from the common cold to arthritis to muscle pain; many acupuncturists offer it. Causey uses it mainly to relieve pain, she says. Research backs up cupping as a tool to treat pain, which is what athletes tend to focus on.
Your skin already has good blood flow, but cupping brings even more blood to the area you’re working on, Causey says; the capillaries break, and cells come in to help clean it out. Cupping is thought to increase circulation and lymphatic drainage; all of that blood flow can help the body heal faster.
Causey uses it frequently for patients who aren’t getting full range of motion, or if a body part feels restricted. Rather than leaving the cups in one place, she moves them around to lift and decompress the skin and fascia. The movement helps the tissue slide and glide to help get back to full range of motion.
Some people don’t like cupping because of the bruising, she says. The bruises are not painful, per se, but some people don’t care for them. Also, she checks in with people on their pain tolerance, and with patients on blood thinners. It’s not a fit for everyone.
When Causey first did cupping on me, the suction was a lot more intense than the gentle gel cups I had been using at home. As she moved the cups around, I could feel an intense pressure and pulling on my skin. First, I clenched my teeth, then went with deep breathing. It was a relief when it was over, and it did feel like the pain had dissipated.
Causey has seen cupping work well on lower back and shoulder injuries. That said, it requires clinical judgment to decide whether cupping is right for someone, she says. Causey considers cupping one of her many tools. If you have lower back pain, you might need acupuncture, massage, a chiropractic adjustment, rest — or cupping. She says there are many medical providers out there who can support you if something hurts.
“Life’s too short to not do something about pain,” she says.