By Rachel Gorman, LAc
With Michael Phelps and many other athletes proudly sporting cupping marks at this summer’s Olympic Games, cupping is more popular than ever. We have more and more patients asking about cupping for this or that injury or to improve athletic performance. Which is great! We love cupping. It feels great, it’s fantastic for musculoskeletal issues, and it’s fun (for us and for you!). But, most of our patients, as well as the general public, are completely unaware of cupping’s most traditional use—respiratory health.
That’s right, cupping’s most traditional use is promoting respiratory health, fending off colds and upper respiratory infections, and treating chronic lung issues like asthma and chronic bronchitis. Here’s how cupping works: we place special small glass cups on your upper back, and use a hand-held air pump to pull air out of the cups. This creates a suction effect, and the skin, muscle, fascia, etc. lying below the cup is lifted up. I tell people it’s like an inverse massage; instead of pressing deep into your muscles, we are lifting them up, allowing a fresh supply of new blood and lymph to flow into the area. This is why it’s so awesome at treating musculoskeletal issues, too.
Sometimes we leave the cups in one particular place, usually over a specific acu-point, and sometimes we apply a salve before placing the cups down which allows us to slide the cups up and down your back. Sliding cupping on the upper back is especially good for treating lung issues…and it feels amazing. (Side note: you may have heard of this if you have an Eastern European grandmother; I have several friends of Eastern European descent, and they all had the same reaction when I explained cupping to them: “Ohhhh, that’s what she was doing with the cups and the fire”. Side note to the side note: We don’t use fire cups at R&B, so don’t worry).
From a TCM perspective, cupping “releases the exterior” (basically meaning alerts the immune system to kick out “evil invaders” like viruses and bacteria) and is indicated at the first sign of colds/flus with a feeling of heat or congestion in the lungs, difficulty or obstructed breathing, sore throat, lost voice, and coughing (especially phlegmy coughing). Cupping also loosens the phlegm, allowing it to be expelled and helping your lungs recover faster. So whether you have an acute upper respiratory sickness, or a more chronic case of asthma/bronchitis, or even phenmonia, consider adding cupping therapy to your regimen. Michael Phelps says so.
*A note on cup marks: While they look like bruises, they are not painful and usually fade within a few days to a week, depending upon the severity of the condition. We can control to some extent the “bruising” with the amount of suction and the length of time they are applied. Generally, the darker the color, the more tightness and stagnation there is in the area. Over time, there is less and less marking that arises from the cups which is an indication of healing.