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Television sports coverage is in full swing! Featuring prominently among the world’s top athletes are circular marks of various size and color, and news of this phenomenon is featuring prominently among acupuncture groups online! Cupping (the source of the markings) is an important part of an acupuncturist’s training, and we are very excited to see it getting press as such a helpful modality for some of the world’s top athletes as they represent their countries. I thought I’d take a moment to address some of the questions buzzing around this treatment method – I’m just making these up but if you have any more we’re happy to talk.

1. What is cupping? For the purpose of this article*, cupping is a suction technique that relieves muscle pain and tension.

2. How is it performed? My favorite form of cupping is called “fire cupping” and involves the quick application of heat inside a glass cup, removing the heat source and applying the cup to the affected area. The skin and muscle are pulled upward from the vacuum created inside the cup from the heat (there is probably a more scientific explanation for how this works, but that’s close enough). There is another method of cupping that involves plastic cups and a sort of pump that attaches to the cup and creates a suction when you pull up on the handle.

3. Do the cups move? Cups may be placed in one spot (“stationary cupping”); oil may be applied first and cups can be slid around (“sliding cupping”); cups can be quickly applied to and removed all around the affected area (“flash cupping”); or treatment may involve a combination of these methods.

4. Does it hurt? Not usually, though it does often feel strange, since suction is not something that commonly happens to the body. If you have any questions or concerns during your treatment be sure to communicate with your practitioner.

5. How does it work? Short answer: it improves blood flow to promote healing. Long answer: when a muscle has been injured or over-used, it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Due to impaired blood flow, tension increases, mobility becomes painful and the body guards the area, leading to more impaired flow. At some point in this cycle you will experience pain even without exertion. The suction from the cup helps to pull up the blood and fluids that should have been moving throughout the muscle, creating space for oxygen and new blood to find its way through. The “stuck blood” that was deeper in the muscle layer is pulled up closer to the surface so the body can remove it, which brings me to the next question:

6. What are those marks from? The marks you see are from stagnant blood being moved up and out (as noted above). Although they are due to stagnant blood, they are *not* bruises in the traditional sense of the term. To say it another way, the marks are not “from” the cups. The discoloration was already there, and the cups bring it up so you can see it and your body can get rid of it. Discoloration comes from stagnation. Stagnation = pain.

7. Why are the marks different colors? The marks from cups are a direct result of what was happening underneath. Light pink that disappears quickly comes from a well-functioning system. Bright red is usually from a more recent injury or taxation. Basically, the darker the mark, the deeper the stagnation and more deep-seated the pain. Dark marks are often due to the use of ice on muscles or exposure to cold (especially true for swimmers). Even on the same person, marks can be of varying colors depending on the location, further proving that the color comes from an underlying condition or else all marks would be the same on the individual.

8. How long do the marks stay? The longest I have seen them stay is 2 weeks although they fade considerably during that time. The length of time depends on how deep the stagnation was/how dark they are but it is something you might want to be mindful of if you have a formal event coming up when your back would be exposed, or, like Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow, you could flaunt those circles! Your body will get rid of marks faster the cleaner your diet is following treatment, and if you drink plenty of water. You can soak in an Epsom salt bath to speed things along as well.

9. Who can benefit from the use of cupping? The way we live – driving, talking on the phone, craning our necks over to text and scroll apps, working at desks in front of computers for hours on end, feeding babies, carrying children (I could go on and on…) basically makes every one of us a good candidate for cupping. I like to have it about once a month or if there’s a flare-up of pain in my traps or back. In short, you don’t have to be a professional athlete to get good results from cupping!

We do cupping in Lexington, Elizabethtown and Berea – all of our practitioners are trained and well-versed in the methods and uses of cupping and would be glad to get you on the road athletic glory, or at least to feeling better!

*more info here

If you are in search of a practitioner outside of our treatment area, is a good place to start. The NCCAOM is the national certification body for acupuncturists, but bear in mind that some states such as California have their own licensing examination and process and do not require L.Acs to have NCCAOM certification.

If this article reads a little funny, it’s because the “Nationally Televised Sports Event of People Representing their Home Countries in Various Sports” has a lot of rules about who can use their proprietary words. Hopefully you still get the point.

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