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What is Cupping Massage? (Or, whoa, what are those marks on your back?)

Cupping therapy is an ancient healing practice that has been utilized for thousands of years in various different countries around the world, predominantly in Europe, Africa, and Asia. There are many variations, names, and styles of cupping that have been developed over time to improve the efficiency of the practice. Cupping uses a form of negative pressure therapy in which, rather than the compression of soft tissue (as is done in more conventional massage techniques), muscles and fascia are pulled upwards via suction. Traditional cupping involves using fire to remove oxygen from a glass cup to create a vacuum, which is then immediately placed on the body. Cups come in many different sizes and types, and can be applied with varying intensity.

What are the health benefits of cupping? The unique suction technique encourages tight muscles to relax, reduces muscle pain, soreness, and chronic repetitive strain, loosens knotted fascia and connective tissue, and increases circulation of blood and lymph by pulling it up to the surface. This improves the function of the immune system, detoxifies the body, and encourages movement of stagnant blood and body fluids. Additionally, it stimulates the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response of the whole body to facilitate a feeling of calm and lessen feelings of anxiety and restlessness.  Cupping therapy may be beneficial if you find that deep tissue massage isn’t giving you the neuromuscular release you are seeking, have an old injury and scar tissue that is restricting full range of motion, or are interested in incorporating Traditional Chinese Medicine theory into your bodywork.

So what are those marks on your back? The iconic “evidence” left behind from cupping has gained attention in the recent Olympics from athletes like Michael Phelps. These dark circles go away within 2-7 days, depending on the intensity of the cups, and may lead to a feeling similar to that after a deep tissue massage. The marks are usually discolored red and may darken as they heal, but do not scar and are not at all painful despite the appearance. Often, in traditional cupping, the marks are indicative of the internal health of the body, as toxin buildup and stagnation may manifest as darker colored circles in relation to a person’s diet and lifestyle.

Generally, cupping is safe, but is not recommended if you are severely ill, experiencing acute inflammation, or you are in your first trimester of pregnancy. Also, cupping may not be for everyone, as it does leave marks that may take a few days to heal. So making sure to plan accordingly is beneficial if having marks on your body is undesirable. Also, just as with any type of massage, it’s important to relay any specific health concerns to your therapist to avoid complications.

At Noe Valley Integrative Bodywork, we will be using traditional cupping therapy with glass cups, involving movement as well as stationary cupping, as an integrated supplement to our massage sessions. Come book a session to experience for yourself the healing of the ancient art of cupping therapy.


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