You may have noticed the strange round bruising on the backs of Michael Phelps and other Olympic athletes during the Rio Summer Olympic Games. These marks are the result of a technique called cupping.
Like acupuncture, cupping is a traditional asian healing practice used for several thousand years. Recorded as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), cupping was once performed with hollow cattle horns or cross-sections of bamboo. It was also used by ancient Greek and Egyptian healers as far back at 1550 BC.
Today, therapists use cupping to remove toxins, drain excess fluids, loosen adhesions in the tissue, increase circulation and stimulate the peripheral nervous system. The cupping is done along the body’s meridian lines (usually alongside the spine) and can increase energy levels as well.
I visited local licensed massage therapist Lin Hsieh of Meridian Energy Massage to learn more about, and experience, this traditional practice.
The treatment room was warm and dim with the glow of a salt lamp. Music played softly in the background while I undressed and slid between the soft sheets of the massage table. Before beginning, Lin asked if I had any ailments. I told her of a slight head and backache from the end of a cold. Beginning with my head, Lin gave me a wonderful therapeutic massage, using acupressure points.
Next came the cups. Lin explained that, although heat is often used to create suction, she uses only vacuum cupping for insurance reasons (Meridian is a preferred provider for several insurance providers). Vacuum cupping uses plastic cups and a hand pump to create suction and is used at Meridian in conjunction with acupressure massage.
There are three techniques for cupping. Lin will use one or all depending on the client’s health and desire. Treatment one is moving cupping in which she glides the cup over oil-coated skin. In this case, my back and shoulders. This used minimal cupping and felt similar to the massage.
Technique two, prompt cupping, felt like a series of quick bursts as Lin attached, then detached, the cups after only a second or two. This is done repeatedly until the skin turns red. Lin says she uses this method for those with more fragile skin. It also does not leave the characteristic, round cupping marks. The quick pressure and release was interesting and difficult to describe, similar to a popping.
The third technique, stationary cupping, is the only one that leaves the marks seen on the Rio athletes. In stationary cupping, the cups are placed along the meridian lines (typically along each side of the spine) and left for 5-10 minutes, depending on the client. This is not painful. I noticed only a feeling of localized pressure. While the cups sat, Lin continued to massage my lower body, further increasing the circulation.
Stationary cupping does leave a mark on the skin. The depth of the mark’s color and length of time they remain on the skin is determined by several factors including a client’s circulation, skin condition and level of toxicity. The darker the marks, the more toxins are in the body. Lin describes these as cold and wet areas. In traditional Chinese medicine warmth is healthy, as opposed to cold and dampness which are signs or manifestations of illness. Lin can tell by the color of each mark where there may be pain or illness in the body. Lighter marks are a sign of a healthier body. These will also fade faster.
Once Lin removed the cups from my back, a tool that felt like a very warm rock was rubbed along my skin. I noticed a tingling sensation that continued for some time. It was pleasant and very relaxing, likely caused by the increased blood flow to the tissue. Additionally, I stayed warm for hours (unusual during the wintertime).
I left feeling both relaxed and energized, both feelings lasting for some time. Even my sleep quality that night was improved. Lin says clients usually feel even better the next day, as the skin fully relaxes after cupping. Positive effects, such as increased circulation and pain relief, typically last up to a week.
Meridian Energy Massage offers a unique and valuable service to Thurston County with their cupping expertise. It is one I look forward to experiencing again soon.
Lin and colleague, Angela Alexander, have offices in both Lacey and Olympia and offer a variety of service. They can be reached by phone at 360-584-0054 or by email at email@example.com. Appointments can also be scheduled online.