“Embrace the suck – in this case, a literal ‘suck’”
You noticed it on Michael Phelps at the 2016 Olympics. If you follow my friend, KJs Fit Momma, you saw it in her photos. And you’ve likely heard about it, especially within the past year. It’s called cupping – but what exactly is it?
Hallmarked by circular, bruise-like marks on the body, cupping massage is an ancient technique used for therapeutic purposes. Similar to traditional massage in respect to using techniques to mobilize tissue, cupping offers a host of benefits including enhancing blood flow, resetting or calming the nervous system, and reduced muscle tension.
As someone always interested in learning more about strategies to help my body deal with some of my more intense workouts – and, especially now during marathon training season – I was curious about cupping and its benefits for runners, workout enthusiasts, and just in general.
So, I recently sought out a local expert, Dan Senn. Owner of Strength Training and Massage by Dan Senn MS, LMT, CSCS, Senn has been experimenting with cupping for more than a year. He also has an extensive background in kinesiology, exercise physiology, and sports medicine, and was kind enough to share his expertise on cupping – what it is, the benefits it offers, and why it’s something we all should consider trying.
LP: Give us the basics – Cupping 101 if you will!
DS: I guess the most basic description I can give is like sticking the end of the vacuum cleaner hose onto your skin, although the actual experience is much less traumatic. In fact, most clients find it very relaxing shortly after the initial placement of the cups.
LP: Okay, whew, no actual vaccums are involved ha ha – so what exactly happens in a cupping session?
DS: Two approaches are generally used; one, moving the cups in various directions, or two, “parking” the cups. Moving, or “rolling” the cups involves slightly pulling the cups away from the body and gently moving the cups over target areas. This technique is very useful for breaking up adhesions and releasing restrictions that prevent our body from moving in a fluid manner in which it was naturally intended to. “Parking” the cups for short periods also allow the suction to “work” on very localized areas such as muscle trigger points, which are often responsible for referred pain.
Cups come in different types, sizes, shapes, and means of creating suction. I prefer to use glass and silicone cups, depending the area worked.
LP: Is cupping like massage, acupuncture, or a type of physical therapy?
DS: Yes absolutely. The difference with massage is it uses pressure applied in various directions, whereas cupping massage uses suction, which is the reverse of pressure. The effects of cupping therapy are similar to regular massage and acupuncture, with the intent of pain or stress reduction, general or specific muscle relaxation, and enhanced movement function.
LP: What’s the “science” behind cupping?
DS: Scientific research is not as extensive as one would think, given the duration in which it has been used as a therapeutic modality. However, science has fairly well established its effectiveness to enhance local blood flow, and facilitate muscle function and joint range of motion.
Its increasing popularity has also come from its novelty as a modality. As more people are exposed to it, curiosity creates a demand for it, as more therapists begin offering it as a service.
LP: Cupping sounds – and looks – painful. Is it?
DS: Although you’ll find claims that the therapy is relaxing and pain-free (which it most often is), it can also be uncomfortable depending on the severity of the issues associated with the target tissues, the location of the target tissue, and the goals of the therapy.
The amount of suction can be adjusted. Light suction can be used for a more relaxing effect and less aggressive approach. However, if the goal is to release stubborn trigger points or break up adhesions and scar tissue, a more aggressive approach may need to be used. For the most part, discomfort slowly melts away after the cup is initially applied.
And yes, those bruise-like marks, technically called petechia, can serve as “battle scars” and good conversation pieces, but not everyone gets them. I’ve found marks to be very inconsistent from one area to another on clients, and very inconsistent among clients.
LP: Now for a couple of scenarios that would apply to all readers:
1. I’m a runner – why should I try cupping?
DS: Runners can reap the general benefits of decreased muscle tension, enhanced mobility and function by addressing adhesions and restrictions in the facia, and general relaxation.
Common issues found in runners can be addressed such as plantar fasciitis, IT band tightness, and muscle strains and tightness throughout the legs or low back. I personally start with regular massage therapy and end with cupping, so the runner benefits from the regular massage therapy as well. In addition, the type of massage can be tailored to the needs of the runner, whether it’s for pre-event, post-event, or injury specific purposes.
2. I’m not a runner but I work out – why should I try cupping?
DS: Similar to runners, cupping massage can be used to address muscle tightness, pain management, and facial restrictions that inhibit performance in the gym.
3. I don’t work out – should I try cupping?
DS: Yes, cupping massage can benefit anyone, really. It’s simply one tool in the toolbox to manage pain and muscle and connective tissue issues.
LP: Is there anyone you wouldn’t recommend try cupping; maybe someone with allergies or certain conditions?
DS: People who have blood clotting issues, are on blood thinners, have renal or heart failure issues, or have inflammatory skin issues would not be recommended to try cupping.
I would also avoid cupping over fractures and recent injuries that are still in the acute inflammatory stage.
Lubricants are also often used to aid in moving the cups around, so check the ingredients to ensure you have no allergies to its contents.
LP: Let’s say someone takes the plunge and gives cupping a try, what can he/she expect to feel after a session?
DS: Some clients report feeling energized, while some feel a bit drained and light-headed directly following a session. General muscle soreness may also follow treatment similar to traditional massage.
LP: Anything else you’d tell those unfamiliar with cupping who are curious about it?
DS: Try it. If you don’t like the feeling of cups being suctioned onto your skin, stick with massage or other modalities.
I will say, all of my clients who have received cupping treatment have given me very positive feedback, with all of them asking for cupping in subsequent sessions.
Again, a big thanks to Dan for taking the time to answer my questions and share more about cupping.
If you live in the Fargo area and are interested in trying cupping, contact Dan on Facebook. He returns messages quickly (I should know, I creeped his page and messaged him out of the blue to be a guest on the blog – he was very polite and quick with his response!). If you liked this post and think others would be interested too, please share on Facebook and Twitter.
And a last piece of advice for those who choose to give cupping a shot: Dan recommends hydrating prior to the session, and continuing to hydrate as well as eat after the session.
Have you tried cupping? What did you think of it? Leave a comment or tweet me @runlikeagirl311 on Twitter. I plan to give it a try after Fargo Marathon and write a follow-up blog about it, and would love to include others’ experiences along with mine.