Cupping: Marks and Myths

Cupping: Marks and Myths

This is not the first time I have written about cupping. It will probably not be the last. I am writing about it again because I feel it is still an underrepresented modality, and a poorly misunderstood therapy. First let's start with the facts: Cupping is negative pressure. It's suction. Think of it like this: cupping pulls fluid up into the tissue instead of pressing the tissue down into the fluid. I often use what I call the rug metaphor.

It goes like this: you roll up your living room rug because it needs a cleaning. You throw it into the bathtub and turn on the water. Then you start applying some pressure and the water starts changing color as the debris starts coming loose. Yes, you are making progress; but imagine what would happen if you were to use a water vacuum on this same dirty rug. You would be cleaning it in an entirely different way. You would be sucking water up through the fibers of the rug and that would assist in dislodging debris without applying any direct pressure. I like this metaphor because it helps to illustrate that both methods are effective, just in different ways. I also like this metaphor because it allows us to talk about debris.

I prefer the word 'debris' to 'toxins.' People throw the word 'toxins' around way too much in my opinion especially when describing what's inside our bodies. Yes, there is a wide spectrum of unique cells made of separate parts making up all that debris but it's not space dust, or cancer, or 'toxins.' It's you and your life. So with that in mind we will use 'debris' from this point forward to identify all of the stuff that is kicked up and moved around during massage and cupping sessions.

Now what about all those horrible bruises? Let me ask you, what's the difference between a bruise and what is commonly referred to as a 'hickey or love bite?' Both are associated with a purple coloring or redness. Both are caused by damage to blood vessels, but a bruise (hematoma) is always associated with internal bleeding due to blunt trauma, whereas in the superficiality of a hickey (caused by suction), the damage to the capillaries is minimal. Suction from a massage cup is usually not enough to cause what is commonly referred to as a hickey but on occasion it can be. Especially when there is extreme suction and the cups are stationed in one area and not 'walked' or moved around the skin surface. It is important to note that though the visible results of cupping can appear painful and drastic, these marks usually don't last more than a week and the area is typically no more sore than an area that has been worked deeply with massage pressure.

It is also important to remember that cupping from a licensed massage therapist differs from that of a licensed acupuncturist. Most L.A.C.s perform what is called 'fire cupping,' which requires a flame to create a vacuum in a glass cup. L.M.T.s typically do their cupping with silicone suction or plastic pump style cups. The goal of the L.M.T.s tends to be more about breaking up adhesions, mobilizing tissue and increasing mobility, both locally and regionally. But there are surely as many ways to incorporate cups into a treatment scenario as there are massage therapists. The idea with cupping is to allow the therapist to custom tailor the session around you and your expectations, not around his or her particular skill set.

- Matt Dalton, LMT