Last year athletes competing in the 2016 Olympics made numerous headlines for appearing on the international stage with a series of circular purplish-red markings on their backs, shoulders and other body parts. The marks, the telltale signs of a manual therapy known as cupping, weren’t unique to athletes of a specific sport (although Michael Phelps was often discussed) or a certain country—and everyone seemed to be talking about how this technique might be affecting the athletes’ performances.
Jason Abbey is a local licensed massage practitioner who uses and teaches cupping, and for more than 13 years he’s been practicing the procedure on everyone from professional football players to weekend warriors. He says while 2016 seemed to be the year cupping made its worldwide debut, the technique is actually an ancient Chinese healing modality that has been used for more than 5,000 years to ease sore muscles, fight inflammation, aid in detoxification and increase circulation, among other things.
“Some records go even further back than that. The Egyptians had recorded use of cupping, and there are many different influences as the application has become wider. In the beginning people used it to extract venom, which is a very literal use of the detoxifying effect,” says Abbey.
Which is why Abbey admittedly chuckles at all the recent hype, but he says he’s ultimately thankful for anything that brings more attention to cupping, his healing modality of choice. Now it’s a matter of helping educate people about the potential benefits.
To fully understand the premise behind cupping, Abbey says it’s first important to understand—and not fear—the marks.
“My biggest obstacle is education about the markings. People do call them bruises, but they are marks and there’s a fundamental difference. Cupping is all about the lifting and separating of tissue to restore blood flow. The mark is just a reaction, a response to suction. There’s no blunt force trauma to the tissue. It’s very different from a black-and-blue bruise from a punch, where soreness and achiness seep into the affected tissue,” Abbey says.
Abbey further explains that logistically, cupping works by placing sterile cups on a person’s skin and creating a suction known as reverse pressure. The reverse pressure encourages increased blood flow and circulation to the soft tissue, which he says can be healing for injured, stressed, scarred or diseased tissues. The cups are then manipulated and moved along the body to address all the necessary areas.
“Cupping does not replace other body work or massage. It only increases efficacy of what you already do. You’re still using your hands; it’s just 50-50—one method pulls and one pushes,” he says. “It’s important to point out that cupping doesn’t treat anything the hands can’t. It just does it in a different way.”
Abbey also points out that like other forms of bodywork, cupping is particularly good at encouraging a mind-body connection.
“It’s all about helping clients make connections. For example, someone could come to me for a chronic hip issue, and sometimes it is just about a structural issue related to a specific injury or traumatic event. But also it could be caused by a suppressed emotion, built-up stress or other mental issues that can be stored in the body,” Abbey says. “I’ve found that cupping is one of the best ways to explore and reduce those patterns. It clears the way for flow to be restored in diseased parts of your body and brings balance to the whole body.”