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Cupping – a non-pharmaceutical therapy, a component of traditional Chinese medicine by Daisy Dong, Denver, Colorado
On August 8, 2016, NYtimes.com posted an article titled “What are the purple dots on Michael Phelps? Cupping has an Olympic Moment.” In recent years, professional doping scandals have worried many athletes who did not use drugs but won their competitions fairly. Many athletes have soft tissue injuries or muscle fatigue from training hard daily. An increasing number of athletes look for non-drug therapies for quick healing and have discovered cupping as one of the quickest modalities in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve muscle and tendons ache, soreness, or tiredness. The result of effectiveness ranges from a few minutes to relief until the next morning. Some people, including medical students, have asked me where I lecture the elective course of “Introduction of Chinese medicine”. I lecture at the Health Science Center, at the University of Colorado in Denver. They were also interested to know why some people showed the marks and some do not.
Before answering this question, let us first take a look at the history of cupping therapy. The first official record of the cupping therapy was written by a Taoist and herbalist, Mr. Ge Hong (281-341 AD) in China in his book: A Handbook of Prescription for Emergencies. During that period, cups were actually animal horns to eliminate pus in the skin or soft tissues. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 AD), the book was compiled by Mr. Zhao Xuemin titled Supplement to Compendium of Materia Medica dedicated an entire chapter on cupping. This book emphasizes the value of this therapy and mentioned to place fire inside of pottery or bamboo cups, etc. Today, the most popular cupping methods are fire cupping in special glass jars or pumped cupping without fire.
The mechanism of cupping is to withdraw air from inside of the cup-like device via fire or a pump. When a vacuum is created inside of a cup, the cup will automatically suck on the surface of the skin and instantly lift up the skin as well as soft tissues below the skin. Suction forces vary depending on how much vacuum is created inside the cup. The fire cupping produces more force than the pumped cupping. From the picture on the blog of New York Times that Michael Phelps received the technique that can be identified as pump cupping. The advantage of pump cupping is that it is easy to learn and lightweight for traveling purposes. The fire cupping induces not only stronger suction but also induces warmth. Therefore, the fire cupping produces suction as well as heat for the tissue on the spot. This gives the fire cupping advantages to relieve the pressure or pain locally and warm the focal area to speed up the healing process. For severe pain, a provider, such as a licensed acupuncturist, will lance the painful area to generate a couple of drops of blood before applying a cup on the area. Bleeding the area before the cupping will produce better results. Children can receive gentle cupping without bleeding or cup retention.
Cupping lifts the soft tissue to provide room for better blood circulation, lymphatic drainage, and re-arrangement of muscle tension. It is one type of method that provides fast myofascial release. Each spot can be cupped for a few seconds and up to ten minutes. Multiple cups can be applied in the surround-injured area quickly. Leaving a cup on one spot longer than ten minutes particular in hot weather or use a fire cup can result in blister formation or possible skin infections.
Cupping can be used in any painful area (without open wounds), acupuncture points, or trigger points. Cupping can be placed in a fixed spot for five to ten minutes or moved up and down with any lubricant along acupuncture meridians or directions of muscle fibers.
Cupping is a mechanic stimulation to trigger chemical reactions in the local area as well as in the brain to relieve endorphins and other natural painkillers.
Since cupping is a non-pharmaceutical therapy, it is not considered to be doping and is safe for anyone, including athletes, to use. The difference of the cupping from the myofascial bodywork is that cupping lifts up tissues instead of pressing down on tissues.
Cupping marks are only present when the circulation stagnates resulting in pain, sore, or even limited movement. However, for many chronically ill people, the cupping marks will present as redness for a short appearance on the skin. In general, the color of the cupping mark will last three to five days. A patient wondered if she needed to see a dermatologist for the cupping marks because in the past, the cupping mark caused suspicion of physical abuse
The current issue regarding cupping is most people who perform cupping, except licensed acupuncturists, lack proper training in this country. There are a couple of photos on the internet showing cupping done incorrectly by non-acupuncturists which resulted in severe blisters or tissue necrosis. We strongly recommend people should only receive the fire cupping from licensed acupuncturists who have gone through formal training and many hours of practice under strict supervision in school.