Were you watching the Olympics this summer wondering about those red circles on Michael Phelps’ shoulders? Those marks, called "sha," are from an ancient Chinese healing technique known as “cupping.”
Cupping has been around for over 5,000 years. It's practitioners stated it released toxins and helped correct imbalances in the flow of energy.
There were two cupping types: dry and wet. Dry cupping is performed when a glass bulb with a smooth rounded lip is suctioned onto the skin via heat. Either a cotton ball is lit on fire and used to generate heat inside the cup, or alcohol is rubbed around the rim and lit on fire before being placed on the skin.
The heat inside the bulb generates a vacuum like effect, producing a negative pressure on the connective tissue or fascia under the skin pulling the skin upwards (1).
The resulting "sha" are painless broken skin blood vessels which heal in 3-7 days.
Wet cupping was administered in the same way, except the skin is slit prior to application to allow blood to escape (2).
This method is rarely used today.
Myofascial Decompression - cupping in the 21st century
The modern application of cupping by physical therapists is known as “myofascial decompression.”
- reduce adhesions, scar tissue of skin and connective tissues
- restore normal mobility
- improve efficiency of movement.
Instead of glass bulbs, hard plastic cups are used and instead of heat generating a vacuum, a hand pump suctions the skin. This allows for a more precise application of pressure.
The application of cupping is done with the "cup" device left in place for 5 – 10 minutes or slowly moved back and forth over the restricted area.
How can we - non super-human species - benefit?
While more studies are needed the literature thus far shows some positive effects from myofascial decompression (3), including decreased neck (4) and low back pain (5).
Empirically, we at EMH Physical Therapy observe that the cupping technique combined with functional movements reduces pain and releases tight tissues quicker for patients with painful cesarean scars, plantar fasciitis, scoliosis and other conditions.
Keep in mind that cupping is an adjunct treatment, used alongside other types of manual therapy, therapeutic exercise and neuromuscular re-education at the discretion of your physical therapist.
1. Kravetz, R.E., 2004. Cupping glass. The American Journal of Gastroenterology 99, 1418.
2. Xue, C.C., O’Brien, K.A., 2003. Modalities of Chinese medicine. In: Leung, P.-C., Xue, C.C., Cheng, Y.-C. (Eds.), A Comprehensive Guide to Chinese Medicine. World Scientific, Singapore, pp. 19–46.
3. Cao H, Han M, Li X, Dong S, Shang Y, Wang Q, et al. Clinical research evidence of cupping therapy in China: a systematic literature review. BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine 2010;10:70.
4. R. Lauche, H. Cramer, K. -E. Choi et al., “The influence of a series of five dry cupping treatments on pain and mechanical thresholds in patients with chronic non-specific neck pain—a randomised controlled pilot study,” BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 11, article 63, 2011.
5. Y. D. Kwon and H. J. Cho, “Systematic review of cupping including bloodletting therapy for musculoskeletal diseases in Korea,” Korean Journal of Oriental Physiology & Pathology, vol. 21, pp. 789–793, 2007.