August 22, 2016

Cupping: You don’t have to be an Olympian to benefit from this ancient Chinese treatment

Mindful Mondays Cupping
Carroll - Christie Mandia Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Founder of Restorative Harmony Acupuncture, Caroline Grace Ashurst, manipulates tissue by moving silicone cups along Mandia's back to release stagnant blood and to encourage fresh blood and nutrients to an affected area of the body.

In the past few weeks, Michael Phelps set the world afire when he appeared poolside with what looked like round (gold medal sized) bruises on his back and shoulder.

In his highly anticipated return to the pool, he had everyone asking, “What the heck is that?”

We now know that those circular marks were produced during a treatment known as cupping, a mode of traditional Chinese medicine dating back more than 2,000 years.

Since Phelps' debut, interest in the ancient art of cupping has skyrocketed. Quite clearly, when the most decorated Olympian of all time does something, we pay attention.

I, myself, had a brief experience with cupping a few years ago during an acupuncture session so I knew just who to call last week when I decided that I must try the therapy again.

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Ashurst examines Mandia's back, looking for inconsistencies, noting affected areas, and determining where treatment will be applied.

By trade, Caroline Ashurst is a licensed acupuncturist, but that does not begin to describe what she truly is to the people she treats. I consider her my guru, having gone to her with everything from emotional distress to chronic headaches. It was she who in fact introduced me to cupping a few years ago, as she practices adjunctive Chinese therapies in her center city outpost, Restorative Harmony.

The session began with a conversation about cupping. I ask her to describe what exactly the treatment is and who can benefit most from it.

Her answer, “Anyone who has tight muscles.”

Caroline goes on to explain that the red marks will only appear as a result of cupping in areas where there is blood stagnation, contrary to popular belief that those marks are a result of broken capillaries or bruising from the suction of the cups. (Notice my treatment photo where red marks only occur around my right shoulder where I have pain from a tennis injury)

Cupping brings stagnant blood to the surface and therefore allows for optimum blood flow to the muscles, aiding in recovery. In other words, our muscles recover when new, fresh blood is moving through our tissue. When it is standing still, it prevents tissue from receiving the nutrients that the blood carries, causing tissues to tighten, weaken or even die.

Caroline also tells me that cupping is not only to used to combat muscular pain, it is also used widely for its internal applications. People across Asia and Europe use the technique on both adults and children to improve immune function and eradicate cases of flu or common cold by using the cups to draw out toxins from the body.

There are many types of cupping. Traditional cupping (heat or pump creates suction in cups), moving cupping (cups are used in continuous motion) and quick cupping (typically used during facial cupping which is highly regarded for its effectiveness in patients with Bell’s Palsy and TMJ.)

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Ashurst places a suction facial cup on Mandia's forehead. This technique encourages blood flow and collagen production in the facial tissues.

So, how long do the cups stay on? That depends on the person. Some people’s cups stay on longer than others. For example, an Olympic athlete like Michael Phelps could stand to have his cups set for a longer period of time. If your body’s constitution is depleted from something like an auto-immune disease, cancer, etc…you must be very careful. Cups left on too long can be damaging to the body so it is highly recommended that you see a practitioner who is licensed in a complementary modality such as acupuncture, as no cupping licensure exists.

Despite many other reports, there have been studies performed regarding the efficacy of cupping therapy that demonstrate significantly superior results in cases where cupping therapy was combined with other treatments as opposed to the treatments alone.

Another lesser known treatment called Gua Sha produces similar results but uses scraping, rather than suction, to bring stagnant blood to the surface.

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Gua sha is a form of restorative bruising caused by the scraping of surface body tissue with a hard, smooth-edged tool. This traditional Chinese medical technique is similar to cupping but uses pressure in place of suction, which is the effective element in cupping.

Although it is different means to the same end, I personally, prefer this treatment due to the location of my pain in my neck. It seems much easier to target this area with the Gua Sha tool than it is to get a cup to stick at that angle.

In my experience with both cupping and Gua Sha, the pain relief is immediate.

So, how often should you receive a cupping treatment? For a professional athlete, once per week would be ideal. For someone like me, perhaps once every 4 weeks would suffice. During a cold or flu, once or twice will help pull the heat and toxins out of your body and aid in faster recovery. You may also use cupping as a preventative health measure periodically as needed.

A few things you must know before you try cupping:

  1.  Never put cups near vital organs, cupping is performed mostly on the back of the body.
  2.  Drink tons of water post-treatment to flush toxins out of the bloodstream.
  3. Keep your muscles warm (covered) after the treatment to prevent them from tightening again.
  4. Like anything, you must be very careful if you are trying this at home.

Thank you, Michael Phelps, for reminding us of the importance of active recovery and self-care and also, for giving this ancient Chinese treatment it’s well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

I will continue to keep you posted on my health journey and would love to hear your experiences as well. Please feel free to share below or tweet me @christiemandia.

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Each week, on Mindful Mondays, Christie shares her tips and tricks toward a healthier lifestyle. Give these tips a try to improve your health, wellness and quality of life!