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Michael Phelps, Crop Circles and Cupping

Michael Phelps, Crop Circles and Cupping

Were those crop circles on Michael Phelps’s shoulders or were they battle scars? As the world now knows, they’re the red circles left after Chinese cupping. Mr. Phelps receives cupping to improve his athletic performance, perhaps primarily as an aid to recovery after intense workouts but also to improve flexibility.

I am happy to announce that I am now offering cupping in my practice. It’s a modality I have largely ignored because, when I entered private practice after graduating acupuncture school fourteen-plus years ago, it was needling that consumed my interest the most. But not everyone wants needles. If you’re already a patient in my practice, you may have experienced gua sha, or skin scraping, as an adjunct to needle therapy. (I’ll write more about gua sha another time.) Or other hands-on modalities.

Cupping as it exists in the acupuncture clinic comes out of ancient Chinese medical practice. Jao fa was a method in which a cup was used to exhaust air, creating negative pressure that allowed practitioners to remove pus to speed wound healing. Jao means “horn”, “fa” means method. Horns were natural cups with an end that could be opened for the exhausting of air. Cupping was found in ancient Egypt and Persia, and in other cultures up to the present day. A Jewish patient pleasantly recalls her grandmother’s use of bankes, glass cups placed on the skin when you had a cold. The use of cupping in Jewish culture dates back to the writing of the Talmud, in the Fourth Century CE.

Without a doubt, cupping is related to bloodletting, a practice that is also found in many cultures. I do not do bloodletting, although a drop of blood may appear on the skin when a needle is withdrawn, or multiple droplets of blood or lymph if I am working to bring down the swelling of an ankle strain. The red circles that remain on the skin when the cup is removed is because capillaries have broken due to the vacuum created by the cup. Unless the acupuncturist has prepared the area with a lancet for the purpose of bloodletting, or has left a needle in place under the cup (some practitioners do this; I choose not to for safety reasons) there is no external bleeding. I’m told that cupping for the purpose of bloodletting is common in China.

You can them place them elsewhere. Or you can slide the cups along muscles and muscle groups. The latter is called moving cups. It’s a great therapy for a tight IT band and is also employed for infertility. A lubricant, often infused with Chinese herbs, is used to make it easier to slide the cup on the skin. Since cupping depends on being able to form a vacuum, if you’re hairy, please be aware that you have to shave the target area.

What does cupping do? In cases of muscular strain due to overuse or traumatic injury (a blow to the arm, for example), there is local stagnation in blood flow and the flow of other fluids. That’s one reason your muscles ache where you received the blow, and why there may be limited range of motion in a joint associated with that muscle. When you’re cupped, the body removes the new, excess fluids and repairs capillaries, muscle tissue and fascia. (This is a key component of the action of acupuncture needles. I’ll write more about that in a later blog.) This relieves the pre-existing stagnation and normalizes the tissues of muscle tissues and fascia. It pulls skin, fascia and muscle tissue slightly apart and permit the tissues to glides against each other more easily, which restores function. The red circles disappear within hours or at most a couple of days. You’re left with a healthier state of affairs.

What is cupping good for? As noted above, it’s good for muscular pain due to overexertion or traumatic injury (falls and blows). It’s useful for helping you move better if you’re engaged in regular athletics or you spend five days a week in a chair. That includes both achy knees and achy shoulders. It’s a needle-less way of addressing asthma, and there are strategies for infertility as well. When it’s done well, you good afterwards.

I invite you to schedule an appointment and learn about cupping firsthand!

© William Weinstein 2016

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