I am overjoyed to see the mainstream media buzzing with discussions about cupping therapy and the telltale marks sported by many of the 2016 Olympic athletes. These marks are called ‘sha’ in East Asian medicine. They are not actually bruises as many would like to call them, but I’ll explain that in a moment.
This is not the first Olympic games where athletes sported cupping sha, but the number of athletes covered in sha has definitely increased in these 2016 Olympic Games. The increase in athletes receiving cupping therapy compared to previous years speaks volumes to the success of cupping therapy at improving athletic recovery. But it is important to know that cupping therapy can benefit a wide variety of people and treat a wide variety of conditions, not just athletes looking to hone their competitive edge.
I’ll be writing a three part series on cupping over the next few weeks to help explain the whats, whys, and hows of cupping therapy. But first some basics:
What are those marks?
Those round marks that you’re seeing on the Olympic athletes are not actually bruises. Bruising is an impact injury that causes blood vessels to rupture, creating a hematoma or a blood pooling underneath the skin’s surface. As a bruise heals, you can see the colors of now ‘dead’, non-functional blood start to change colors as the body recycles the components of these blood cells pooling in the bruise. The colors fade from bluish-purple, to reddish purple, to green to yellow and then finally fade. Bruises are an injury.
Cupping marks are created from suction, pulling functional blood and metabolic waste products that have been trapped in chronically tight muscles to the surface; the blood will recirculate in the blood vessels and the waste will be removed via the lymphatic system. Some waste products or pollution will leave through the pores of the skin, such as tar from smoking tobacco, and chlorine from swimming in chlorinated pools. The darker the sha in an area indicates that there is either more trapped pollution; or more metabolic waste buildup due to limited circulation. Cupping marks are both therapeutic and diagnostic. The marks tell us what muscles need more help with recovery from athletic endeavors or simply what muscle groups are holding chronic tension – leading to less circulation. Cupping then treats these conditions.
Athletic performance and recovery
Cupping therapy becomes an invaluable recovery tool for athletes looking to improve performance and physical comfort. Why? Cupping helps remove metabolic waste trapped in muscles, breaks up and allows micro-tears in fascia to heal properly, stimulates circulation in connective tissue and joints, and increases lymphatic drainage. All of this means faster recovery times for well-used athletic muscles. It also means athletes feel better, stronger, faster after hard workouts. Many athletes once they feel the benefits of cupping therapy choose to include a weekly cupping routine with or without acupuncture during their higher training months to prevent injury and keep their body in the best training shape possible.
Cupping therapy for the non-athlete
Cupping therapy for the non-athlete provides a huge boon to your personal health, whether you are a graphic designer or writer spending great deals of time in front of a computer screen, or are a server in a restaurant or hair stylist doing large volumes of repetitive motion that are hard on your body throughout the day. Not to mention the benefit to individuals who work in hard physical labor like agriculture, forestry, and factory careers.
By the same processes listed for athletic performance, cupping therapy works at relieving chronic pain from tight muscles. Chronic pain often (not always) relates to a combination of poor blood flow into a muscle group or groups, scar tissue shortening the fascia (protective casing around muscles), and toxins/waste stored in the fat around our muscle tissues.
Scar tissue in the fascia often occurs from repetitive motion with poor posture, hard physical labor that the body was unprepared for, accidents such as motor vehicle accidents, and over training the body with athletics or hard physical labor.
So basically if you suffer from painful muscles, cupping therapy will help relieve your muscle pain and help the natural detoxification process of our your body.
Who to get cupping from
Like many medical modalities, it is important to see a trained professional for cupping therapy. The risks of cupping are mild, but injury can occur. To get the best and safest cupping treatment, look for professionals that have certification in cupping therapy. All licensed acupuncturists or East Asian Medicine Practitioners (WA state) are trained extensively in cupping therapy.
You can also find licensed massage practitioners, chiropractors, physiotherapists, and naturopaths with certification in cupping therapy training.
Next week we will cover cupping therapy for lung and immune system health, followed by discussing how to use cupping therapy for detoxification, and finally we’ll dig deeper into treating musculoskeletal pain with cupping.