The 2016 Rio Olympics brought new light to an old treatment–cupping. The world stared as athletes like Michael Phelps proudly displayed his petechia for the world to see.
Petechia is the medical term for the purplish bruise that can form with certain types of cupping techniques.
After seeing so many Olympic athletes with bruises this year, the rest of us were left wondering about this trend of using cupping as a medical treatment or sports enhancement treatment. Does cupping really work? Can I utilize cupping as a self-treatment method for common running related pains?
Cupping for Runners
Yes, cupping does work! In this post I will explain what it is and how to use it to massage and mobilize tissues in order to reduce pain and improve movement.
What is cupping?
Cupping is a method or technique to massage and mobilize tissues such as muscles, skin, fascia, and tendons. The exact treatment effect is unclear, but presently the research indicates that it helps to reset neural pain receptors and stretch receptors. Thus, reducing pain and allowing for improved movement.
Cupping has been around as a treatment technique for thousands of years. The research on cupping is interesting and for the most part, concludes that cupping is helpful in pain management. There are some indications that the “suction” may lead to improved blood flow to an injured area which could speed up healing times. Other health claims of the benefits of cupping haven’t been adequately proven in current research.
(Do not perform cupping without consulting your medical physician first if you have a known blood clotting disorder or you’re taking blood thinning medications.)
Can you use cupping as a self-treatment method?
It really depends on the desired location for the treatment. Cupping is simple and easy to perform on the lower leg. However, cupping isn’t so easy on your upper extremities or back without assistance.
As a physical therapist, I recommend using cupping or plunging as a self-treatment method because it reduces pain and helps improve joint range of motion (ROM) while not impeding performance.
Cupping can likely help with recovery by reducing soreness and post work out tightness. By promoting improved blood flow, it allows for improved nutrient delivery which can improve recovery times. This may allow for more intense or frequent training sessions or prepare you for multiple events with little rest. Alleviating soreness prior to activity can have a psychological boost, which shouldn’t be overlooked as an important outcome.
In the case of injury, using cupping as a treatment can not only reduce pain and allow for more mobility, but it can improve blood flow and nutrient exchange so that your body can heal and recover faster.
Do you have to bruise for it to be effective?
No, bruising doesn’t make the treatment more effective. I advocate that it’s not necessary and should be avoided. There is no need to cause additional damage to already injured tissues.
Do you have to have the expensive fancy cups?
Traditionally, cupping has been performed with glass cups by using a flammable paper to quickly “burn” the oxygen in the cup which causes a suction force. There are now many types of plastic or silicon cups that can easily be purchased online. CupEDGE Massage Tools are what I use and recommend.
For many years I have taught people how to use a mini plunger as a method to provide a suction force for self-treatment. Fancy cups are not necessary. The cups can be more convenient, but even a small sink plunger will do.
How to use Cupping and Plunging as a Self-Treatment Method:
- Perform small oscillations over high tone areas such as muscle spasms, where there is noted skin immobility, tender areas or trigger points.
- Use a lubricant. Typically, an oil-based lotion works best. I personally use Albolene Moisturizing Cleanser.
- Move the cup slowly across the painful area either parallel or perpendicular to the painful areas. More advanced practitioners will move the cups in functional patterns or fascial planes.
- Place the cup, and move the body or extremity in functional patterns or movements. For example, place the cup on the area of tightness in your calf and slowly perform heel raises.
Please refer to Cupping and Plunging Techniques.pdf in which I demonstrate how to use cupping and plunging as a self-treatment method for calf pain.
To utilize the cupping method effectively, find your body’s specific areas of tightness and restriction. Apply the cup (or mini plunger) either over or near those areas and slowly move the cup in a clockwise direction.
Notice that the cup (or mini plunger) is never left in one place for too long. This prevents the petechia that was so often displayed by athletes during the Olympics. Common sense should always be used for how long you perform the treatment and where the cups are actually placed.
Another option is to apply the cup (or mini plunger) first, and then move the area to be treated. Go slowly, and move the treatment area in a full range of motion or at least as far as you can with the cup still in place.
The treatment shouldn’t last more than a minute or two as you don’t want the cup (or mini plunger) to remain in one place for too long because it causes bruising. There isn’t any research that definitively proves that sporting a large bruise provides any additional treatment results.
Remove the cup (or mini plunger) and re-check the area. Does it feel better? If so, be sure to keep moving the affected area.
Utilize the cup or mini plunger as a temporary pain relieving technique in order to be able to continue performing your desired movements and exercise. The cup (or mini plunger) is nothing more than a tool that allows you to get back to exercising and moving the painful or injured area. The long term benefit will be your ability to keep involved with your desired activities such as running.
For additional information on common running injuries and how to self-treat, please visit www.thePhysicalTherapyAdvisor.com.
Disclaimer: The information is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice. No health care provider/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at your own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Do not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition you may have. Please seek the assistance of your health care professionals for any such conditions.
I remember reading in one of Dean Karnazes’ books that he would have his dad perform an ancient Greek remedy called a “vanduzzi” on him when his muscles were tight -it sounds a lot like cupping. Interesting how many cultures seem to practice some form of this.