Since the Rio Olympics began, Michael Phelps and scores of other olympians have made headlines not only for their god-like fitness and athletic achievements, but also for the little purplish-red dots that they are brandishing on their shoulders and torsos. Once hickies were tossed out as a possible explanation (as if Olympic athletes are that passionate about each other's infraspinatus muscles), the media learned and reported about this "new" ancient therapy; cupping.
Cupping (also called fire cupping) has been used in various parts of the world for thousands of years. Greek and Persian grandmas and Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors alike have been using this technique to improve circulation, decrease muscle tension and pain, and improve many other physiological functions.
That elite modern day athletes are using this technique is a testament to ancient knowledge and the power of simple, natural, low-tech interventions to promote the body's innate healing capacity. In cupping, as in acupuncture, no active foreign substance is inserted into the body. Rather, a mechanical stimulation evokes a physiological response that is now the interest of much research and study.
Cupping can be thought of as a kind of "reverse massage", where instead of applying mechanical compressive pressure to break up tissue adhesion and other forms of stagnation, a vacuum is applied to "pull" the tissue. This pulls some older blood out of circulation without damaging the vessels, leading to visible petechia (or "sha", in Chinese), which are often mistakenly called bruises. That blood is then gradually reabsorbed into the tissues and vessels, while new blood is allowed to circulate in the affected area. The body's healing mechanisms are beautifully complex, and allow the creation of a local, non-damaging type of acute inflammation to lower more chronic, harmful types of inflammation. A river that flows cleans itself, and so it is with many areas of the body that become diseased or compromised.
Cupping is most often used to treat musculo-skeletal pain and dysfunction (hence its popularity among athletes whose training regimens would make our heads spin). As one of the branches of Chinese Medicine, it has long been known to treat numerous other conditions as well, including respiratory conditions, acute symptom of a cold/flu, allergic or autoimmune conditions, etc. Smart money says some of these more widespread benefits of cupping will be come known and studied in Western medical and academic circles before too long.
So while it's now making its rounds as "news", acupuncturists and their patients have long known about the wonderful benefits of this simple therapy. Cupping has been around a long time. Even as some attempt to debunk it, while others attempt to rename and co-opt it (myofascial decompression, anyone?), it's not going anywhere.
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