Cupping: not just for Olympians

Apr 8, 2017

If you tuned in to the Olympics last summer, you may have noticed a few athletes with large, round bruises on their backs. Myofascial decompression, commonly known as “cupping,” began as a traditional Chinese practice, but has since become a standard modality for patients and athletes alike, including gold medalist Michael Phelps. So what does it entail, exactly?

To find out, “Take Care” is joined by Dr. Kevin Rindal, a chiropractor and member of the 2016 USA Olympic Swim Team medical staff. Rindal specializes in chiropractic spinal and extremity manipulation, as well as soft tissue rehabilitation. He is also the founder and CEO of InHealth, a sports injury and performance facility in Seattle, Washington.

Between each layer of muscle, Rindal explains, there is a barrier that allows the muscles to glide over one another. With overuse or injury, myofascial adhesions can occur, which cause restricted movement along those barriers. This is where cupping comes in.

Through the application of cups to the restricted area, lubrication, and a device which sucks the air from the cup, muscle tissue is pulled up, creating a separation between the muscles and the connective tissue called fascia (hence the “decompression” in myofascial decompression). This eases the adhesions and allows for the muscles to glide as they should.

It’s not the most comfortable treatment, according to Rindal, and it will also cause slight petechiae, or ruptured blood vessels, which is where the round bruises come from. But despite the discomfort and bruising, Rindal says cupping has very few negative effects, and the athletes he treats experience far more benefits from the practice.

Bruise-like marks left after a cupping treatment.
Credit Amy Selleck / Flickr

For swimmers like Michael Phelps, the back is frequently the focus, as many strokes incorporate a considerable amount of back movement. But in general, the location of application will depend on the individual. Some may find relief through cupping of the shoulders, the outer leg, or the back; it all depends on where the muscle restriction is.

What makes cupping unique, Rindal says, is its decompressive nature. Unlike methods such as massage, which are compression based, cupping pulls the muscles and fascia away from each other. Rindal incorporates many compressive, active release techniques into his practice, which involve using force to press on muscles. But in cupping, he pulls the layers away from each other as opposed to kneading them out. In Rindal’s view, decompression can enhance the desired effect, so he often prefers it in certain cases compared to compressive techniques.

And cupping isn’t just for athletes. As Rindal notes, it originally began in traditional Chinese medicine, serving to balance chi and increase blood flow. So you can take that approach, or stick with the myofascial decompression approach used for athletes, depending on what you’re looking for. As always, it’s important to talk to your doctor before seeking treatment, because while cupping may benefit some, it might not be right for others, such as individuals with high blood pressure or those on blood thinners. If you do decide to give cupping a try, Rindal highly encourages going to a trained specialist, and avoiding the do-it-yourself kits sold online.