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Cupping Explained

Cupping, taping, metal scraping tools, and more. The Summer Olympics and CrossFit Games athletes seem to be doing it all! While it looks cool, what exactly does it do? Is it helpful for everyone or is it something only high-level athletes can use? Let’s dive into one of those topics – cupping – and how we use it at Resilience RX.

Cupping vs. Myofascial Decompression

First off, let’s start by establishing some definitions so we’re talking about the same things. Cupping is a passive process where suction cups are placed on the body. These cups are typically left on for around 20 minutes. This is geared towards toxin release and improving blood flow.

Myofascial decompression is an active process where cups are left on for 2-4 minutes. Active movement is performed while the cups are on. Less cups are typically used and specific amounts of pressure are used to target specific layers of the body. Myofascial decompression takes traditional cupping techniques (eastern medicine) and blends them with western medicine concepts.

Both of these often leave marks. However, how the marks are interpreted is different. In traditional cupping, the color of the skin is what is important. For myofascial decompression, we are looking for the following: divots in the muscle when it is being moved, increase in the size of pores in the skin, and an elevated surface where the cup was after it’s removed.

 

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At Resilience RX, we practice myofascial decompression, not cupping, based on the definitions provided above. However, for ease of reading, we are going to use the words “cupping” and “myofascial decompression” interchangeably throughout this blog post. Myofascial decompression is quite a mouthful and most are more familiar with the term “cupping”.

How Does Cupping Work?

This is an excellent question and one we get often. It typically comes with a shocked face after the statement “I can’t believe I did that without pain.” Like most things in medicine, there are theories as to why things work, but not concrete explanations. We’ll briefly dive into an overview of each theory and the different ways cupping can be beneficial.

Relaxing Tight Muscles

Without a doubt, this is the most common area we use cupping in. Muscles that are tight often contract to protect themselves. While this is helpful at the time of injury to provide immediate stabilization, long-term tightness leads to dysfunction. Cupping is a non-threatening way to provide additional stabilization to the muscle, which allows it to relax. This is where we see our most dramatic pre/post treatment changes occur. We’ll dive into a few examples of this in a minute.

Mobilizing Deep Connective Tissues

Sometimes things get stuck in the body and they don’t move well. This usually happens after surgery or a lack of use (brace, immobilization, injury). In this situation, cupping works by pulling on the tissue layers, forcing them to open up. As the tissue layers open up and movement occurs with the cups on, water and other nutrients enter between the tissue layers. This allows the tissue layers to glide more fluidly past each other, improving the overall movement quality.

Trigger Point Management

Trigger points are an area of focal contraction within a muscle. In this area, blood flow and nutrient exchange is decreased. Similar to how deeper tissue layers are mobilized, a traction force can stretch out the trigger point, introducing water and other nutrients. The influx of these chemicals allows the trigger point to relax and the muscle to function normally and without pain.

Changing the Nervous System

When a body struggles to recruit certain muscles or over-recruits other muscles, we can use cupping to retrain the brain to use the correct muscles in the correct way. To help the brain relearn how to use a muscle, we place cup(s) on that muscle with light pressure and practice activating exercises. To help the brain learn how to turn off a muscle, we use cups at a high pressure to inhibit the muscle. While these cups are on, we perform exercises that activate the muscles we want the brain to use instead.

Cupping In Action

With all the different things that myofascial decompression can target, it can have many uses. Here are a few of the ways we’ve used it in the clinic.

Pain With Reaching Overhead

A male we were working with was having discomfort reaching overhead to perform overhead presses, snatches, and overhead squats. After measuring latissimus dorsi flexibility and finding a deficit on only the painful shoulder, we performed cupping to his latissimus dorsi. Afterwards, we had him test overhead pressing and he no longer had shoulder pain. When we measured his latissimus dorsi flexibility again, it had significantly improved and was only a couple degrees shy of his non-painful shoulder.

Inner Thigh Discomfort

Another client was having discomfort in his inner thigh when he stretched his leg out to the side. It bothered with his golf swing, getting out of a car, and deep squats. After testing his mobility in that muscle and finding it limited, we applied cups and had him move. He was surprised to find that movements that were normally painful were pain-free with the cups on. When we took the cups off, his muscle was firing more normally and he did not have pain with deep squats anymore.

Pain With Push Ups

Lastly, one of the clients that was seeing us was having pain in the back of his shoulder with push-ups. His technique was spot-on but he was having difficulty activating his rotator cuff. We applied cups to the irritated muscle and had him perform push-ups. While doing this, we were able to see the dysfunction in the muscle by it forming a divot every time he activated it. With the cups on, the push-ups were pain-free. And, when we took the cups off, the push-ups were also pain-free.

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Can I Cup Myself?

We get this question a lot. The short answer is yes.

The long answer is what you do will most likely not be as effective as what we do in the clinic. While it seems fairly easy to apply cups and move around, a lot of critical thinking goes into the process. We use our anatomy knowledge and previous experience to place the cups and determine how much pressure goes into the cups. As clients move with the cups on, we change which movements we have them do based on what their movement patterns look like. It’s not a “if A, then B” procedure. It’s one piece of the complex puzzle of solving discomfort in the human body.

Wrapping Things Up

In summary, the cupping that we do at Resilience RX is actually myofascial decompression (opening up the connective tissue in the body so it moves better). It’s most effective for tight muscles that won’t let go. We also use it for retraining movement, loosening up scar tissue, and trigger points. Myofascial decompression is one tool of many that we have and utilize in the clinic on a regular basis.

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