In today’s society, health care is widely diversified. From Western to Eastern medicines to alternative health care, there is much to choose from. In recent years, various cupping therapies have become more known and yet not many people know why it works or what it does. My goal is to help clarify some of the mystique around this wonderful therapy.
Cupping therapies use negative pressure, or suction, to treat the body. Once the cups are applied to the skin, they pull various fluids to the surface. Vacuum therapies are a major vasodilator for the body and they encourage vascular structures to open. Cups draw fluids up, creating a clearing out of everything below its position. With proper use, it can be used to cleanse and dispose of accumulated materials to encourage a more balanced and thorough state of homeostasis. From surface skin, lymphatics and muscle to deep visceral organs and bones, vacuum therapies have almost limitless potential.
The lymphatic system is an awesomely powerful body system encased in a delicate environment. Its purpose is multifaceted; it is our body’s defense mechanism and it disposes interstitial debris, along with dead blood cells, toxic materials, and even cancer cells. There are three layers of lymphatic drainage pathways: superficial (drains skin and subcutaneous), intermediate/intrafascial (drains muscles joints and ligaments) and deep (corresponding organs). The entire system can be addressed with superficial stimulation, with a suction pump-like effect. Using vacuum therapies appropriately at this level, we can help clear all layers effectively by helping to open their superficial flap-like valves and mimicking the rhythmic, pumping movement within; even gliding the cups along is a powerful wave-like cleansing process. Think of all the pathologies that have lymphatic involvement, lymphatic complications. Depending on the pre-existing training of the practitioner using the cups, so much can be enhanced with this tool.
Next, we must acknowledge the effects on the circulatory system. Both circulatory and lymphatic systems respond simultaneously to this therapy. Ischemic tissue is dry, has reduced oxygen-rich blood supply and can be characterized by pain and dysfunction. Just as a hot compress application can warm tissue, cups can do so with its added benefits mentioned above. This concept is important to grasp with vacuum therapies. A cup can be used to literally draw blood into ischemic tissues, creating localized hydration, while also clearing out any negative materials that inhibit optimal hydration and function … all without heat added into an possibly inflamed area.
Think about all those marks some people get from cups. Understanding what is happening to the body can help to explain “those marks.” Improper and aggressive use of cups can cause bruising that is traumatic capillary damage. However, when used correctly, the discolorations can clearly “mark” areas that need proper attention and help show you exactly where there is dysfunction and restrictions that need to be released. Everything from old blood deposits from repetitive motion injuries and surgical sites to carcinogenic materials can be seen in these marks. Ancient cupping often employed “wet cups” or “bleeding cups” and the practitioner would cut the skin to remove such materials. Nowadays, using a cup without cutting the skin is no less effective, and it keeps it within our legal scope of practice to do so. In addition, to show progress as the body responds and cumulative work is applied, marks will no longer appear in such areas as there is nothing more to purge at this time.
Putting the marks aside, think of how great vacuum therapies can be to encourage hyperemia in the tissue. The skin is the last organ to receive blood and this treatment is highly effective at feeding such tissue. Minimal use can grant immediate warming and pliability where there was rigid, immovable tissue before. So much treatment time is spent trying to stimulate blood flow, and using a cup can accelerate this process and allow you to make better use of your time in each treatment session.
Now, let’s discuss the benefits for adhered tissues, ranging from slight dimpling to scar tissue. Adhesions are defined as an irregular union between two previously separated structures. Cups are used to literally lift and separate tissues, while simultaneously flooding oxygen-rich and nutrient-dense blood into these previously dehydrated, malnourished layers. So much work is done to break up adhesions – from cellulite to fascial binding, trigger points and scar tissue – wouldn’t it make sense to lift and manipulate the tissue rather than continue to press on such structures?
When dealing with surgical scars, examine what may be locked into this structure. One of my best examples is a client of mine whose 30+ year old scars had inhibited her every movement (lymphatic to mechanical and visceral function). She came to me after almost a decade of aggressive scar tissue work. Over the course of many sessions, we not only had all types of black and purple and red blood deposits surface, we also saw colors of anesthesia that were left behind, and had quite a few stitches surface. Her visibly indented scars flattened, her mobility in all capacities drastically improved and her physical composition changed dramatically! All of this resulting from incorporating safe, logical and non-forced vacuum therapies into what I normally do as a massage therapist.
Next, we must address its effects on the fascial system. Fascia, as many body workers know, is a very complicated structure to work with. As muscle tissue has specific attachments, anatomy and direction, fascia is a web of interconnected tissue that runs throughout the entire body without interruption. Fascia is involved in every structure of the body; from a cellular level, through muscles, organs, nerves, bones and organs. Its restrictions prove to be some of the most complicated to try and soften, its patterns at times can be too rigid and bound to easily interrupt. Cups are an amazing tool that allow the body worker to unbind these holding patterns and roll the tissue out as cups glide over it, creating hydration as they move along. Thereafter, manipulations can work with the fascial planes with more ease to conjunctively interrupt such restrictive patterns. By no means is a cup the sole approach to relieving such delicately complex situations, but one experience of incorporating it into your work will prove its massive impact. Countless body workers and health care practitioners can attest to this experience.
Now that you can envision how cups are taking effect, I like to discuss various inflammations. Inflammatory conditions can be characterized by local heat, swelling, redness, pain and possible decrease of function. Countless pathologies have inflammation involved in some capacity. Inflammation is meant to eliminate debris and dead tissue from acute wounds, and can be a vicious locked cycle within the body in chronic conditions, such as fibromyalgia and Lyme’s disease. In such cases, the inflammatory materials remain contained with no expulsive movement happening. Cups can be used to help with both acute and chronic inflammatory conditions. I cannot stress enough how appropriate safe training is necessary to approach such conditions, but the results are amazing!
Another great benefit of vacuum therapies is its effect on the central nervous system. Housed by the cranium and vertebral column, the cranial and peripheral nerves exit and innervate appropriately through intricate layers of tissue. All too often, clients are receiving therapeutic bodywork to alleviate not only compressions on nerves (ex. carpal tunnel syndrome) and the associated pain but also to (hopefully) reduce the symptoms of countless nervous system conditions. Massage therapy alone can reduce production of norepinephrine and cortisol (stress hormones) but it also increases production of dopamine and seratonin which encourage relaxation. Now blend the effects of the decompressive benefits of cups with these chemical influences in the body from massage, and the results are quite powerful.
In summary, cups have been used throughout civilized time to help heal people. In today’s world, so many people are looking at alternative care to help heal and maintain wellness. Seeing how dynamic something like vacuum therapies can affect the body will hopefully encourage you to seek out safe and appropriate training. If we can retrain the eyes to see any marks that arise as beneficial clues instead of harm, then we can appreciate the idea of “better out than in!” That being said, marks are not necessary to receive benefits; they are simply a side effect, a “bonus” with this therapeutic tool. Countless clients and patients are receiving impressive benefits with no marks at all – only from the safe, appropriate use of negative pressure therapies.