Michael Phelps made headlines during the Olympics for his world record breaking medal count, adorable son Boomer, his infamous #phelpsface and those bruises along his shoulders and back.
Michael Phelps may not be the first Olympian to sport the tell-tale marks of cupping therapy but he is the most famous. As the most decorated Olympian of All time, racking up 28 medals, of which 23 are gold. We all want to know what he eats (a lot), how he trains (a lot) and how he recovers (ouch!).
One of his methods of recovery is cupping therapy which involves placing cups on your body which leave large and perfectly rounded purple bruises. Curios, we looked into how common cupping is in South Africa, met with some cupping therapists and tried it out for ourselves.
Dr Debbie Smith, a homeopath and certified Acupuncture Practitioner, explained that cupping is not a new practice. Cupping therapy is an ancient therapy well over 2000 years old. Cupping therapy and massage therapy works on the myofascial tissue – the layer of tissue between your muscles and your skin.
In the last 4 years, there has been greater research on the myofascial tissue. The myofascial tissue is a very sensitive organ; everything in your body is connected to everything else. “When you move your head to the left, even though you don’t feel it, there’s a pull that is happening at your feet.”
Through incorrect movements, be it during exercise or accidents, the myofascial tissue ends up getting “scrunched up” which causes pain. Cupping releases the myofascial tissue and creates an influx of blood flow.
When you have a trigger point (those points in your body that hurt when pressed) it’s because the muscle in that spot is tight. Good stuff can’t go in and bad stuff can’t go out. Eventually the problem develops chronically and you need to release it to allow the muscle release.
Who should Do Cupping?
Cupping is not only for athletes, it can be used on all ages – Dr Debbie Smith has treated kids as young as 5 and adults as old as 85. People who should avoid cupping are those who bruise very easily (like the elderly). Cupping is said to facilitate healing by decreasing blood stasis and increasing the circulation of fresh blood with oxygen and nutrients.
You should consider cupping if…
You have sports injuries or arthritis as its good for the muscular skeletal.
You have asthma – cups are placed on your neck and chest to open them up.
You suffer from painful periods – cupping removes stagnation. When the blood is not moving is where you get pain and stagnation and that can cause painful periods.
You’re stressed – most cups are placed along the spine which is your bladder meridian which is blocked during stress. So cupping helps you relax.
You have stomach problems – cups placed on your stomach help the flow of bood which can ease stomach problems like constipation or IBS.
For weight loss – in china cupping is often used to aid weight loss.
The Different Types of Cupping
During our research we discovered that there is more than one form of cupping, each one varying in degrees of intensity. There’s cupping massages, dry cupping (With glass, silicone, plastic or bamboo cups), vacuflex cupping and wet cupping.
Cupping Massage (Intensity Level: Low)
Cupping massage is the least intense and a great starting point for those uneasy about cupping or not keen on walking around with purple bruises. Cupping massage is a mix between a beauty treatment and a massage / recovery treatment.
Zissy headed to Bodiologie in Bedforview, Johannesburg for a cupping massage with Bridgit, an Aesthetic Therapist.
About the Cupping Massage Experience“After filling out a form detailing any skin issues, problem areas and medical information, Bridgit led me to a massage room. She began by rubbing oil onto my back and lightly massaging it to relax the muscles. She then used small rubber cups to massage my back and muscles. The cups get suctioned onto the back with a simple squeeze. Bridgit moved them up and down, and in tight areas left them sit for a few minutes. As the cups create a pulling sensation and not pushing she was able to run the cups along my spine and bony areas which felt great.
After my back, Bridgit did some cupping on my stomach, tracing where my intestines lie. This did feel a bit weird as my stomach is not my go to massage area. Cupping on the stomach is great for digestion, can help reduce constipation as well as menstrual cramps as it encourages the flow of blood. Bridgit also cupped my feet, along my soles which helped loosen the tightness there that comes from running.
As cupping pulls the skin, it actually draws out toxins and dead skin cells. After leaving the cups over certain areas you could actually see little black marks where toxins and dead skin cells had been eliminated (gross but cool!)”
What a cupping massage feels like
“The cups felt like a light vacuum going over my skin. The whole massage was incredibly relaxing and felt really good. The stomach cupping felt slightly weird as I’ve never had my stomach massaged. The foot cupping felt really soothing over my tight muscles along the arch of my foot. Overall it was incredibly relaxing and I walked out feeling like I had a spa treatment”.
“My back was slightly red afterwards, but that subsided within a few hours. I had two very light bruises where she had left cups for a while which disappeared within two days”
The After Effects
“I left feeling incredibly relaxed. My back is very tight and tense, and the massage helped loosen and relax the muscles. However, much like getting a massage, one session isn’t going to permanently relieve tightness and I started feeling tight again after a day.”
Try a Cupping Massage If
Cupping massages are a great alternative to sports massages especially for those who don’t enjoy the pain that comes with deep tissue massages. As the motion is pulling and not pushing it is quite soothing and less intense than a massage.
Bridgit explained that cupping helps bring oxygen and blood to the muscles which helps them heal. It also helps with the appearance of the skin. As an Aesthetic Therapist, Bridgit also uses cupping massages for beauty treatments such as to help reduce cellulite, stretchmarks and aging of the skin. For her clients who use cupping to try reduce the appearance of cellulite, Bridgit advices doing it alongside a diet where sugar and fizzy drinks are eliminated. In terms of stretch mark reduction, the stretch marks would have to be red. Once they’ve turned white, cupping isn’t going to do much.
Bridgit also offers a cupping facial which utilises mini cups to promote oxygen and blood flow to prevent aging.
Bridgit also sells the cups alone which are incredibly user friendly. They would be great to help massage tired legs after runs especially on sensitive areas like along your ITB and great tool for period relief.
R250 –R750 (depending on the duration of the massage)
To book a cupping massage with Bridgit click here[bctt tweet=”cupping helps bring oxygen and blood to the muscles which helps them heal” username=”nutreats”]
Dry Cupping (Intensity: Medium – High)
Dry Cupping varies in intensity depending on the cups being used and the pressure. Glass and Bamboo cups are more intense. As Dr Debbie explained, glass cupping is either on or off, there’s no in between. With plastic and silicone cups, the therapist is able to create the vacuum and increase or decrease the intensity according to the client. You may have seen videos in which cups are heated with a combination of alcohol and fire before being placed on the body. This is used for glass cups to create the suction. Plastic cups utilise a pump which creates the suction.
Tarryn and Feige both tried out dry cupping.
Tarryn headed to Dr Wendy Staak in Marina Da Gama, Cape Town to try out a full body dry cupping with silicone cups experience.
About the Dry Cupping (with silicone cups) experience
“I managed to get the FULL body experience. I chose to focus the therapy on my legs as I am running and cycling a lot at the moment and have very tired legs. While I was on the table Wendy felt my shoulders and said, “these are pretty tight, let’s do these to!” Who am I to say no J. The Cupping promotes circulation and draws out inflammation and toxins both very useful for recovery after over- use (story of my life)”
What Dry Cupping Feels Like
“It felt weird! My legs felt quite tender when she put on the cups, it was similar to the ache of dry-needling/acupuncture but a lot less focused that slowly faded away the longer the cups stayed on. My shoulders didn’t react as much but as the cups stayed on longer the spots warmed up quite a bit. It was very soothing”
“My legs were barely bruised and the marks were gone by the end of the day. My shoulders however have the tell-tale cupping marks. They are pretty dark and look like I’ve been attacked by an octopus it is now 2 days later and they have faded quite a bit, I still have one or two purple circles though.”
The After effects
“My legs felt pretty good, and stayed that way. My shoulders ached for a few hours afterwards, but my daily activity is quite arm intensive so by the end of the day it basically felt like I had had a deep massage. I went for a cycle the next morning (you shouldn’t exercise on the day) and it took some time for them to warm up. After that I set a few PR’s so that’s always nice. I had told Wendy about some calf tightness and she focused a bit in that area, and right now as I’m writing this my calf feels pretty perfect ,if I may say so myself. So it did have a positive effect”
Try Dry Cupping if
“Dry cupping is a great deep tissue massage alternative. It gives a lot of the same affects as massage does, and I personally prefer the massage experience (relaxing etc.). However, there are some times that I am simply too sore/stiff to let someone rub my muscles too deeply and I think that is where cupping would really help relieve the tension without the tears that a deep tissue massage can sometimes bring about. I think it’s a great technique to add to the array of recovery options out there” It’s also good for sports injuries, arthritis and stomach issues.
R200 for first session, R150-R180 thereafter (dependant on wet or dry cupping)
R150 for pensioners and those under 18
To Book a Cupping session with Dr Wendy Staak click here
Feige headed to Dr Debbie Smith, a homeopath and certified Acupuncture Practitioner in Bryanston, Johannesburg
Johannesburg for dry cupping on her back using plastic cups.
About the Dry Cupping (with plastic cups) Experience“I went in for a cupping session and we chose to do it on my back. Dr Debbie explained cupping to me. I was nervous but excited after hearing her speak about it. I lay down on my back and she pressed into my abdomen – similar to a sports massage feel. She told me to open my mouth and from my tongue she was able to see that I have a spleen issue and shared a helpful hint about how my body doesn’t respond well to cold and a raw diet wouldn’t be good for me. She also mentioned that this could make my legs feel heavy on a run, which they have been feeling.
I then turned face down on her table and she placed the cups along my back.
While I was lying there, she spoke through what she was doing and because she uses a range of methods to treat people she asked me if I’d be open to her using her small tool set to relieve the tension in my neck. She mentioned that she uses these when there are areas the cups can’t get to. She used a flat metal tool and in an almost deep scraping motion ran it along the tension points in my neck. It wasn’t comfortable but it wasn’t painful. She also asked if I’d be open to her doing acupuncture in my lower legs (Around my Achilles) – she couldn’t know I have an issue and not try fix it will I was lying there. The acupuncture was the least noticeable treatment; I didn’t feel the needles go in and didn’t feel them sticking there.
All this while the cups remained on my back. As time went on you develop almost a numbness and the uncomfortable feeling softens. Before I knew it, it was time for them to come off. I felt refreshed immediately after, like you do when you get off a massage table. The experience – Although strange had a very relaxing calming effect on me.”
How Dry Cupping Feels
“It felt really odd; the best way to describe it is a pinching of the skin. Imagine someone grabbed a layer of your skin and pinched it into a ball but in a swift vacuuming motion? It feels something like that.”
The After Affects
“I left feeling refreshed, but within an hour however I was quite sore – my body felt like it had been through an intense sports massage, which doesn’t feel great immediately after but the day after you feel renewed and amazing. That night my back felt a bit achey as I lay down to sleep but the next day that feeling was gone.
It is difficult to say what level of affect it had on me because I wasn’t experiencing back pain prior to the treatment. However, I didn’t feel the usual back strain I feel in the afternoon after sitting all day.
The best however was the results of the acupuncture. My legs immediately felt lighter on my next run. In fact the Sunday following I ran the quickest 10km I was has been able to manage in a couple of weeks. I’d definitely be tempted to try that again when I’m faced with a bout of tired heavy legs.
Cupping though? I don’t know if I’d go regularly. I think if I had an injury flare up or a very sore muscle I’d want to try it as a treatment option because the way she describes what it does really sold me. However to relieve general tension I’d pick a regular sports massage over it.”
Try Dry Cupping if
“I’d recommend dry cupping if you have tender muscles, (maybe like right after a big race like comrades) very sore muscles or an injury. In these cases, having a sport massage would feel unbearable. Even though I love them, sports massage is almost invasive because the masseuse prods at your muscles deeply pushing them in. Because dry cupping works on the myofascial tissue which gets out of balance, the muscles are able to relax.
It’s also good for asthma, stress and painful periods.”
R740 for 45 minutes
To book a session with Dr Debbie click here
Vacuflex Cupping (intensity: High)
Zissy headed to Delizia B Da Paixao – a Reflexologist, Meridian, Shiatsu and Acupressure Therapist to find out about Vacuflex cupping.
Delizia practices Chinese cupping which works on the meridians within the body. The meridians lines are the acupuncture lines in the body. This opens up any toxicity or blockage on the meridians/acupuncture points allowing the chi (energy), blood and oxygen to move in the body and allowing the body to help itself to heal itself.
She uses a vacuflex machine which has rubber cups attached to it for cupping.
The Vacuflex Cupping Experience“Delizia attached a cup to my palm and arm so I could feel how it works. The machine is quite large with pipes sticking out of it. Each is attached to a rubber cup and pumps a body oil into the cups. Normally Delizia will keep the cups on for 2-3 minutes depending on where she sees the blockages in the body. The time is less than with plastic cups as the pressure is a lot more intense”
How Vacuflex Cupping feels
“It’s incredibly intense and is quite uncomfortable. It’s a mix between an incredibly strong vacuum and someone biting you”.
“It leaves ring marks which Delizia compares to hickie marks. The one on my hand went away within a week.”
Try Vacuflex Cupping if
Vacuflex cupping is good for neck spasms, leg injuries and muscle spasms. A vacuflex cupping session involves being hooked up to the vacuflex. Delizia will place your feet in “boots” and attach the cups to your meridian points. Afterwards she removes your feet from the boots and has a 10 second window where the feet discolour due to the vacuflex. This allows her to see where she needs to work on as well as if you have too much sugar in your body, have inflammation or a chronic issue.
“Delizia is incredibly intuitive and is able to point out where your weak points are. Just from observing me she was able to tell that I suffer from lower back pain and tend to sit curled up with my legs tucked under my butt (which isn’t so great for me).”
R400 for one hour
To book a session with Delizia click here
Wet cupping is when blood is drawn and it is done if there is congestion. A cupping therapist cuts the skin with a scalpel and places the cup over it. You want the blood to come out. Both Dr Debbie and Dr Wendy offer wet cupping (and no, we didn’t try it).
Dr Debbie uses wet cupping when someone has a fever that won’t break and she normally combines it with acupuncture. And according to her it looks worse than it feels.
Zissy is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to make things, do things and wear things.