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Cupping therapy for wellness and health: an ancient tool for modern times

Updated: Feb 5


Those who follow us on facebook will by now be aware that a new therapist has joined the ranks at Myokinetics. Melanie Nicholson, who brings a range of skills that have been refined by her own experiences of recovery from serious injury (a shared experience in common with all of our best therapists and PT's), also offers a service made famous across the therapy world by famous blotchy American swimmers (see below): cupping.

Michael Phelps is a fan of cupping therapy

Before we offered this newly popularised ancient treatment to all and sundry it was agreed that one of the team should undergo a treatment. And, with a niggly naggly calf that was just crying out for some TLC, I volunteered for the assignment. Below is my account of what I learned about cupping therapy and its place as a tool for general wellness and health, and my experience of the treatment. If you have aches and pains in bits of your body that you use alot, and you think cupping might be worth a go, then read on!

So what is cupping?

Cupping is an ancient therapy that has been around for approximately one gazillion years. Or perhaps not quite that long, but it's earliest recorded use is 1,550 BC, so it has been with us for quite a while. This fact is not to be treated as anything other than an indication of the length of time that humans have been using cupping. After all trepanning and blood letting have been around a while and I don't think either of those are likely to help you swim any faster! That said, the treatment would certainly have been around, and known about, during the time of Hippocrates 'the father of modern medicine'.

Mel and her cupping equipment

There are a number of forms of cupping treatment (so I was informed when I asked prior to the start of my treatment), of the three commonly practised (dry, wet and fire), Mel told me that she practised dry cupping. All the forms of cupping work by the application of a vacuum to an area of skin which increases localised blood flow at the surface in the area of the vacuum.

Wet cupping also involves drawing blood through suction via a small incision in the skin. Fire cupping uses fire to create the vacuum that adheres the cups to the skin. I'd have to confess that neither wet nor fire cupping held particular appeal, and I'm glad that 'dry' cupping was the treatment on offer!

With cupping there is more than a slight chance of developing some localised discoloration (red marks as per Messr Phelps above), these are not bruises but rather blood, toxins and cellular debris in the body being pulled up to the surface of the skin. These marks are an indication that blood flow has increased to the area. With the treatment relying upon increasing localised blood flow the most notable contra-indications to cupping are those clients who are on blood thinners. In these cases cupping is not for you - no way Jose.

The other advantage that cupping has over deep tissue massage for instance as the ability to stretch tissue and fascia through the localised suction into the cup. This stretch reflex can have a benefit for mobility in joints around the area that has been treated.

So what's it like then?

My treatment began innocuously enough, with Mel gently massaging my calf. As a sports therapist, Mel brings her massage skills and knowledge into the Cupping that she provides. She uses an initial massage to assess for areas that exhibit signs of significant tension, tightness (and pain) and then places the cups on and around those areas. The cups are applied to the skin and a small hand held pump increases the vacuum in the cup and lock it to the skin.

Mel explains that there are three main techniques used in cupping and that their use depends largely on the degree of discomfort that the client will tolerate:

  1. Static cupping involves siting a cup on the skin and leaving it in place to provide a static vacuum (similar to a trigger point release used in deep tissue work)

  2. Flash cupping involves siting a cup on the skin, placing another adjacent to it, removing the original and placing it adjacent to the second (a little like a caterpillar moving up or down your back)

  3. Gliding cupping involves gliding one cup up and down along the skin (similar to the deep glide used in deep tissue work).

Effectively cupping can be summarised as the same as deep tissue except it works by pulling rather than pushing.


And while the techniques are similar to deep tissue massage the discomfort relative to each method used is the same - static cupping is less painful than flash cupping which is itself less painful than gliding cupping.

While gliding is the most uncomfortable of the three techniques, I'm happy to report that it posed no problems whatsoever during the treatment to a man renowned as a 'screamer' during deep tissue massage. The experience was a little uncomfortable, and a little sharp but nowhere near as unpleasant as having a thumb jabbed into your gastrocnemius... In fact the most painful part of the whole experience was at the beginning and the end of treatment when Mel provided initial assessment massage and final flushing to the treated area,

After 25 minutes or so of cupping, Mel removed the cups and provided some firm flushing through the calf muscles, it was at this point that I was able to tell that the cupping had had a tangible effect as the muscles that she had assessed earlier, felt notably more tender but far less tense and tight. They had also developed the same sensation of having been worked as they would have done during a deep tissue massage, and with a whole lot less screaming on my part.

On a side note, I have to thank Mel for also helping me to spot an emergent case of achilles tendinopathy that I should hopefully be able to rehab before it gets out of hand. For that alone I am eternally grateful!

But does it work?

It's now a few days since I've had the treatment and my calf feels as though it's done an intense workout. I'm increasingly confident that once the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) settles, I'll be able to commence a rehab programme that allows my calf muscles to recover from the overload that messed them up in the first place. I've booked a follow up cupping session next week to continue the process of softening those baby calves into veal and anything that gets me to part with money more than once has to be a good thing!

One thing I will also say is that like many therapies, alot relies on teh quality of the therapist. Mel clearly has the intuitive skill to work with either cupping or deep tissue massage - she spotted the areas of concern and worked them thoroughly. There was no cookie cutter treatment here - the area was assessed and the treatment provided where it was required. Definitely impressed.

Addendum P.S. Having had the follow up treatment I can report that my calves now feel significantly less tight - I can stretch without being aware of tightness and the emergent tenderness at the achilles tendon has completely resolved.

If you're interested in Cupping therapy but want to find out more drop us a line here and we'll get back to you. Or just go for it and book Mel today. She knows what she's doing and if it can get the results without the screaming, then it's got to be worth giving it a shot! :)

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