Why Do Physiotherapists Use Suction Cups?

If you’ve ever been to a massage therapist or physiotherapist, you’ve probably heard of cupping at some point. Whether it was recommended by your therapist, or you just heard about it through friends and colleagues, you’re probably wondering what all the hype is about. While some individuals swear by cupping to treat their aches and pains, others stay far away in fear of the bruising and soreness that may accompany. A quick google search will yield countless photos of octopus-like battle scars that are often left behind as a result of the treatment. Don’t worry though, cupping doesn’t have to be painful, and it definitely doesn’t have to leave behind such visible bruising. Today, we’ll discuss what cupping is, why it’s used and how exactly it works.

What is cupping?

Cupping is a treatment that’s used by many different therapists to help with pain, stiffness, and recovery. Therapists will typically use glass or plastic cups to apply suction around a spot on your skin. Glass cupping involves the use of a gun to pump up the cup’s suction force and create a vacuum effect to the skin. This form of cupping often results in the octopus-like bruising pictured below. The significant pressure used to suction the skin causes small microtraumas to the blood vessels within the skin, creating a bruise. The cups may be left on for a few minutes as tolerated, and the skin around the treatment spots may be tender afterwards. 

Plastic cupping, on the other hand, involves the use of only a small silicon cup and massage lotion. The therapist will squeeze the cup to create negative pressure and then apply it to the skin, creating a suction force. With this style of cupping, therapists usually glide the cup along the skin to create a massage-style effect. Plastic cupping may also be done for a few minutes and doesn’t typically leave significant bruising. That being said, it can leave some redness around the area as very small microtraumas will still occur to the blood vessels within the skin.

As mentioned above, cupping is often used to treat pain, stiffness, and promote recovery. Cupping will usually be applied around the site of an injury or stiff area. It can also be applied to muscles to aid in recovery from a tough workout. It’s important to note that cupping may cause some discomfort or soreness, so caution should be used when treating a very painful area. Furthermore, it’s often thought that more pressure with cupping is better, but this is not necessarily the case. Current research suggests that for many soft tissue techniques, such as massage and cupping, more pressure does not always lead to better results. The reason for this has to do with what the treatment is actually doing to your body.

Does Cupping Break Up Fascia?

Contrary to popular belief, cupping does not actually break up fascia. Current research tells us that thousands of pounds of force are needed to deform or change fascia even just a small amount. We know cupping could not possibly apply that much force, so it’s unlikely to be significantly changing the fascia. If cupping is not breaking up fascia, how does it have an effect on pain, stiffness, and recovery? Well, the answer is likely related to the neurological effects of cupping. The stimulus of cupping creates a change in sensation perceived at the treatment site. Our body has many different receptors throughout it that detect different types of stimulus, such as hot and cold or pressure. When these receptors receive a signal, it gets sent to the brain for interpretation. The brain can then interpret it as safe or dangerous. A dangerous interpretation may lead to the perception of pain or stiffness.The change in sensation created by cupping can be enough to alter the perception of danger, which can lead to a decrease in pain and improvement in range of motion and recovery.

Still not sure what to expect with cupping? Call us at 519-895-2020, or use our online booking tool on www.strivept.ca to book an appointment with one of our knowledgeable physiotherapists, and they will be sure to help you understand your injury. 


Liam Newlands
Physiotherapist at Strive Physiotherapy and Performance

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