When Michael Phelps won his 19th, 20th, and 21st gold medals in the Rio Olympics he was covered in purple circular marks. His appearance sparked a fire on social media. What were those marks and how and why did he get them? Turns out the American swimmer was getting Cupping therapy to relieve pain and muscle tension from all the workouts!

What is cupping and how does it work?

Cupping is a form of therapy where negative pressure cups (suction cups) are placed on and/or moved around on the skin. It has been used for thousands of years to promote healing. The earliest record of it’s use can be found in the Ebers Papyrus from Egypt which dates back to 1550BC. It is also mentioned in the Bo Shu, an ancient book found in a tomb that was sealed shut in 168BC during the Han Dynasty.

Ancient people would accomplish a vacuum suction by adding a flash of heat or fire inside a cup commonly made of bamboo, then immediately place it on the body. As the air inside the cup cools, suction is created and the skin and the surrounding tissues are drawn upwards bringing blood flow and oxygen to the area to promote healing. Today acupuncturists still use fire cupping but we also use modern materials such as glass, plastic or silicone cups that can create the same response without the use of heat or fire.

What can cupping treat?

Cupping is used to treat a wide variety of conditions including muscle aches and pains, migraines, arthritis, the common cold, bronchitis, cough, asthma, indigestion, inflammation. It is also used to treat skin issues such as scars, cellulite, and to tighten the skin on the face, abdomen, buttocks, and thighs.

Cupping assists with lymphatic drainage and brings blood flow up to area being treated. I use it in facial treatments to diminish swelling and puffiness in the face. It can also help tighten the skin and relieve muscle tension in the jaw and neck. An added benefit of the increased blood flow is that it leaves your skin glowing after the session.

Facial Cupping

What is a typical cupping session like?

Cupping can be done anywhere on the body but most commonly it is done on the back, neck and shoulders to relieve pain. Depending on your ailment we would place one or more cups on various areas of the body. Sometimes the cups are left in place for a few minutes, other times massage oil is applied to your skin and the cups are moved around creating a massage like sensation. Acupuncturists commonly perform cupping immediately before or following an acupuncture session. We also combine it with other techniques such as gua sha and massage but it is not uncommon to have a cupping only session.

Depending on the individual and the condition being treated, the longer the cups are left in place the darker the marks will be on the body. You can expect the marks to disappear within two weeks. During facial cupping I gently glide the cups across the skin, they are not left in place. Because of the constant movement no marks are left on the face, just a rosy glow. Be sure to drink plenty of water before and after the session to assist with detoxification.

Cautions and contradictions

As with any form of therapy cupping has cautions and contradictions. If you are unsure if cupping can be performed on you please ask ahead of time. Below is a list of contraindications: 

  • Sacral areas of pregnant women
  • Skin ulcers in the area being treated
  • Active herpes in the area being treated
  • Those who bruise or bleed easily
  • Anyone with a serious medical condition must get approval from their medical doctor before cupping
  • Caution with eczema or rashes in area being treated

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