During the 2012 Olympics, mega–star swimmer Michael Phelps was covered in dark circles all over his back. These perfectly round bruises were due to cupping therapy, an Eastern medicine method that uses glass domes and suction in order to stimulate blood flow, loosen muscles, and aid in pain reduction. This was one of the first times that a large audience had seen this therapy, and it sparked a lot of questions. Even after cupping has been elevated onto a global stage, many still do not know what it is or the benefits.
Cupping is a form of Chinese medicine, and it utilizes these domes (made of either glass or silicon) in order to loosen toxins from muscle tissue. This can relax muscles as well as treat other conditions including anxiety, rheumatic diseases, and skin problems such as acne. The practitioner uses heat or a pump in order to create a vacuum inside the dome which creates the suction on the skin. The therapy is supposed to be relaxing and bring a sense of stillness and calm to the patient, which is one of the reasons people believe it helps with anxiety and depression. The most distinct feature of cupping is the dark, perfectly circular bruises that are created—you know them when you see them. It is believed that the darker the bruising, the more restricted the blood flow and the higher the concentration of toxins is in the area.
One of the most popular groups to utilize cupping is athletes. On Penn’s campus, the athletic training department provides cupping therapy to athletes they feel would benefit from the treatment. “For us, it came across our plate as a way to treat soft tissue injuries, soft tissue mobilization,” says Emily Dorman, head athletic trainer. The athletic trainers take each student–athlete on a case–by–case basis to see if they are a candidate for cupping therapy, but use it mainly for chronic injuries. Dorman doesn’t recommend using cupping therapy more than 1–2 times a week for people just starting to get into it. “It depends on when you are doing your evaluation and the injury—that's why each case is different,” says Dorman, describing the optimal outcome. This may include reduction of knots or spasms, increased range of motion, or reduction of pain.
One athlete that uses cupping is Quinn Scannell (C '21), a freshman swimmer who does the therapy two to three times a week to help her chronic back pain. “I have really bad back problems,” says Quinn. “I kind of have a fear of needles, so doing acupuncture is really scary... I tried cupping and that helped.” Reducing her back pain has helped to improve her swimming.
There is not a lot of science to behind these benefits, though countless people swear by it. The British Cupping Society is a group that has made many medical claims about the various benefits to cupping therapy. There are some studies emerging that may back up these medical claims, but for now all we have are personal testimonies.
After all of this research, I decided that I needed to try this. I have been in physical therapy for quite some time for hip pain and have to stretch and do exercises each day in order to ensure that the pain doesn't come back. I figured I was a good enough candidate as any.
When I arrived at the office, the smell of eucalyptus hit me in the face. The lights were dark and the space was calming and warm. I was ushered into one of the rooms, which had an armchair and a massage table with ambient lighting. After filling out some paperwork, I was asked by the practitioner where I was experiencing the most pain. I told him that I had some in my hips as well as my upper back, both of which flare up when I work out a lot. I am by no means a varsity athlete, but I still exercise three to five days a week. While I was getting settled on the table, we talked about some of the side effects and what would happen to me. He explained that I would get some bruising in the areas where the cups were, and that there was the risk of developing water blisters. He also explained that the deep purple bruises that some professional athletes have will not occur for the everyday user—professional athletes are able to handle more intense suction due to their low percentage of body fat.
Together we decided that we would focus most of the time on my back, then use the remaining ten minutes on my IT bands. Sessions run about 30 minutes and are usually used all in one area but can be more customized depending on individual need, which I opted for. As I lay on my stomach, my practitioner asked me if there was pain or pressure in various spots on my back, where he would ultimately place the cups.
When the first cup hit I was slightly shocked at the sensation—it was a mixture between a friction burn and just slight heat in the spot. As more and more cups were placed all over my back, a stretching sensation began to intensify, but gradually dulled. After ten minutes with the cups on my back they were slightly itchy, but not painful. The experience was relaxing to some degree—I mean, as relaxing as glass domes giving you deep hickies can be.
Would I do it again? Honestly I don’t know. I am a huge believer in acupuncture, and the benefits are said to be very similar—plus needles don't leave huge bruises all over your body. The other downside to this therapy is that it is fairly expensive. The location that I went to—Healing Arts, at 1740 South Street—was $50 a session, and I don’t know if I would want to shell that out every few weeks. I think that it is probably beneficial if you have chronic pain or are utilizing your back muscles very frequently. So, unless you're Michael Phelps, I'd say try it out, but don't expect to immediately commit—it is uncupping season after all!