Cupping massage (AKA cupping therapy or suction therapy) made waves at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games when competitive swimmers, including serial gold medalist Michael Phelps, arrived at their events with puzzling marks all over their bodies.
The marks were circular and colored a dark purple. They appeared to be bruises that followed a sort of pattern along the back and shoulders and down the thighs and calves. Was it a rash? Some kind of condition? We all learned soon enough that it was neither. They were suction marks left by special semi-cylindrical devices used in the alternative medical practice of “cupping.”
“I’ve done cupping for a while before meets,” Phelps said in an interview with Time. “But I haven’t had a bruise like this for a while. I asked for a little help yesterday because I was a little sore and I was training hard.”
On the recommendation of his strength and conditioning coach, Phelps started using the cupping technique in 2014 to accelerate recovery time between trainings and maintain the competitive edge that has made him the most decorated Olympian of all time. As he said, the practice doesn’t generally leave such extreme marks, but because they did at the 2016 Olympic Games, cupping therapy finally made global headlines even though it had been around for centuries before Phelps embraced it.
What Is Cupping Exactly?
The practice of cupping uses negative pressure (suction) to lift blood from deep tissue to the surface layers of the skin. The skin pulls into the cup and reddens as blood vessels expand and fluid fills the suctioned area. Multiple cups are placed strategically on the body and left for several minutes at a time.
Cupping Variations: Heat, Pump, or Manual Pressure
Variations of the technique will use differently shaped cups made of glass, earthenware, bamboo, and silicone and will create suction using heat, pumps, or manual pressure.
Heat: The heat method is the most traditional and is used with a firm type of cup (glass, clay, or bamboo). The therapist will place a flammable substance, such as alcohol, herbs, or paper, inside the cup and burn it. As the fire goes out, they will invert the cup against the skin to create a vacuum as the cup cools.
Pump: During the 2016 Olympic Games, athletes used firm glass or plastic cups with pump attachments for quick revitalizing treatments between training. This technique is often the route for serious or time-constrained athletes, who sometimes self-administer treatments. Although extreme or accelerated cupping has been described as painful, it is also embraced by some sports professionals as the best recovery technique an athlete could spend money on. The suction created is intense with this method (hence the pain) and the cups are left in place for only 3-5 minutes at a time.
Manual pressure: As the most modern and accessible method, the manual pressure method is often incorporated with massage for a prolonged, holistic healing experience. Using flexible silicone cups in tandem with massage oil, the therapist presses the air out of the cup before placing it against the skin to create a seal, and then releasing the cup to create suction. These softer cups can also be dragged/massaged along the skin to stimulate blood flow and circulation before placement and left for 15-30+ minutes without discomfort.
What to Expect from Cupping Massage (or Cupping Therapy) at Summit Spa & Float
The differences between cupping massage and cupping therapy are so subtle that the terms are often used interchangeably. While “massage” suggests the goal of relaxation and “therapy” implies treatment for a certain ailment, at Summit Spa & Float both are correct. Our cupping technique incorporates a soothing spa atmosphere with holistic, clinical results.
At Summit Spa & Float, you can expect your cupping massage experience to include:
- The Manual Pressure Method: We use soft silicone cups of various sizes with high quality massage oils for use all over the body.
- Dragging: Silicone cups allow us to integrate the “dragging” technique with our traditional massage services. Dragging can be described as the opposite of massage, which applies pressure, while dispersing negative pressure by dragging suctioned cups along the body lifts connective tissue, breaks up the fascia between the skin and muscle tissue, and stimulates blood flow.
- Safe & Comfortable Experience: Cupping therapy is used worldwide to treat a long list of issues and ailments. While some techniques can be at least as painful as deep tissue massage, our therapists and methods are designed to be completely safe, luxuriously comfortable, and immediately effective.
- Relief for Tight, Aching Muscles: While the benefits of cupping are abundant, the key benefit of suction therapy is the immediate relief it brings to muscle tightness and cramping. You’ll leave your treatment session feeling lighter and revitalized. It’s our mission to make sure of it.
- A Strategic Treatment Plan: Whether you’ve come to the spa with a specific issue or for general relief, no cupping treatment will look exactly the same. Our therapists listen to your needs and feel out the tensions in your body to place, drag, and leave the cups on strategic areas during your 60, 90, or 120-minute session to give you the most out of your treatment for the best results.
What Are the Benefits of Cupping Massage?
You don’t have to be an Olympic swimmer to experience the benefits of cupping, or even an athlete. Nearly every lifestyle—active, sedentary, or somewhere in the middle—results in its share of muscle knots, cramping, and tightness. Relief from these ailments is one of the key benefits of cupping therapy.
How Does it Work?
The two main players (or culprits) in deep tissue soreness and stiffness are lactic acid and fascia. Cupping addresses both.
Muscle soreness is caused primarily by the build-up of lactic acid in the muscle tissue during repetitive use and exercise, whether you’ve spent a few focused hours typing with your shoulders hunched at a computer or training for a drill team competition. By pulling blood from deep muscle tissue to the surface layers of the skin, cupping draws out excess fluids and toxins, including lactic acid, to be flushed away by the lymphatic system, letting you bounce back into action quicker than ever.
Like the segments and pulp of an orange, fascia is the fibrous, connective tissue that knits between and on the surface of our muscles. It’s a fluid structure that functions to stabilize, attach, and separate our internal parts. Important, right? But fascia can stiffen, bind together, and lose its fluidity over time, resulting in limited mobility, stiffness, and an increased risk of injury. While stretching and drinking more water is important to keeping fascia healthy, cupping intervenes to lift and break up fascia, which allows muscles to move more freely and easily.
Michael Phelps’ personal therapist explains it this way: “Instead of pushing down and on muscle and fascia, as massage does, cupping pulls the layers of muscle and fascia apart, much like separating the layers of a flaky pastry, so fluid can flow more easily between them to keep them well-oiled.”
Releasing lactic acid and breaking up fascia offers an obvious advantage to athletes and active people alike, but the benefits of cupping don’t end there.
Cupping Therapy has also been used to treat or soothe:
- High blood pressure
- Anxiety and depression
- Varicose veins and cellulite
- Skin conditions (eczema, acne, viral outbreaks)
- Rheumatic conditions (arthritis and fibromyalgia)
- Blood disorders (anemia and hemophilia)
- Allergies and asthma
- Seasonal illness (cold and flu)
Cupping Research, Side Effects & Risks
Cupping is a safe, sterile, and effective addition to any health regimen. In research conducted in 2010 of 550 clinical studies, none reported serious adverse effects while the majority of studies showed improvement to pain conditions, cough and asthma, acne, viral outbreaks, and other conditions and diseases.
While some cupping methods pose certain risks, such as bruising, mild discomfort, burns, or infection, at Summit Spa & Float we practice the safest, least invasive technique with no loss of health benefits. We do not use open flame, pumps, small incisions (known as “wet cupping”), or solid cups.
The History of Cupping
healing that reaches back into history. Therapeutic cupping methods have been practiced for thousands of years with abiding, long-respected results. Historians mark the likelihood that it was used as far back as 3000 BC, citing traditional Chinese, Iranian,Egyptian, and Greek medicine.
The cup pictured on the right is on display here in Utah at the Pompeii exhibit at the Leonardo Museum in Salt Lake City.
Two hundred years ago, ancient Chinese practitioner Zhao Xueming compiled a detailed book that described the history and origin of cupping in its many variations. Practitioners used different sizes and types of cups and employed varying techniques to create suction, including boiling bamboo cups in water infused with herbs or partially filling glass or bamboo cups with warm water before quickly inverting them on the body. Each technique was paired with certain types of ailments.
Another early mention of cupping as a curative technique was recorded in an ancient book of silk called Bo Shu. In 1973, archaeologists discovered Bo Shu in a tomb dated from the second imperial dynasty of China, the Han dynasty, which lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD. Yet another is the Ebers Papyrus of 1550 BC, now one of the oldest medical textbooks in the Western world.
Balancing the Body’s Energy Flow
The foundational belief behind the ancient practice of cupping, according to the Chinese, is its ability to affect the body’s natural energy flow, or “qi” (chee). Ailments arise when the qi becomes blocked or stagnant. Practitioners find the interrupted zones and correct the flow with carefully placed cups.
Western practitioner and enthusiast Dr. Brent Bauer of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program says that it’s an “American phenomena” to consider cupping as a stand-alone, one-off therapy. Original practitioners integrated the practice with a more holistic health plan. For example, there are the questions of what influences the qi on a daily basis, be it nutrition, spirituality, or simply the world at large.
What we can promise you Summit Spa & Float has an attentive, rejuvenating experience that touches on all aspects of holistic self-care: quality products, premium services, and skilled, compassionate practitioners. Need some alone time to reset your flow? Our spa is the haven you’re looking for.
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