Do you remember the 2016 Olympic games when swimmer Michael Phelps won 5 gold medals in Rio? Or maybe more than the number of medals, you remember the dark circular spots that covered his back and shoulder during the races. Today we take a dive (no pun intended) into the science behind why cupping works and why major athletes are seeking out this well-kept secret.

Cupping therapy has been around for over 3,000 years and has many different variations. By placing a glass or plastic cup on the skin and creating vacuum pressure practitioners can break up scar tissue and separate fascial layers.

Fascia…? No, I voted Republican.

What exactly is fascia? Okay, so we’ve all heard of muscles and skin, but what sits between the layers? Fascial layers are sheets of connective tissue that surround muscles and connect our skin to superficial muscles. Deeper in the body, fascial layers separate adjacent muscles allowing them to slide independently during muscular contractions. Picture getting a steak at a grocery store: Did you ever notice that shiny sheen overlaying the meat? That is a fascial layer covering the “steak” muscle which can be lifted and separated from the muscle belly.

With injury or repetitive stress (such as poor posture), fascia can become stiff and lead to adhesions either between the skin and muscle or muscle and neighboring muscles. Sometimes an adhesion is referred to as scar tissue.  After an injury, the fascial layers try to repair the damage and work much in the same way as wet cement. Movement is typically less stiff at the time of injury, but limited by pain. Once the pain goes away, the fascial “cement” has dried in a pattern that supports only limited motion. This feeling of restricted movement is often described as stiffness.  

And cupping helps how….

Cupping, or myofascial decompression, lifts the skin away from the muscles in addition to separating adhesions between superficial muscles. This form of microtrauma allows for the stiffened fascia to loosen back into the “wet cement” phase of healing. Since there is no pain after cupping, motion is no longer limited. In combination with corrective exercises the fascial layers heal in a pattern of movement decreasing stiffness and pain over time.

Instrument assisted soft tissue protocols like Graston and FAKTR work in a very similar mechanism, however instead of compressing the fascial layers and the muscles to create microtrauma, cupping lifts the tissues separating the fascia from the muscles. This is why you may hear cupping referred to as myofascial decompression (myo = suffix meaning muscle).

Oh, and just a quick reminder, cupping does bring an increase of blood flow to the area. While not painful, you might look as if you lost a fight to an octopus. So keep in mind you may want to postpone your cupping treatment until after that wedding where you will be wearing that super cute backless dress. As always, if you have any more questions reach out to your local chiropractor and see if cupping is a good treatment option for you.