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Cupping: How it enhances recovery and sports performance

Just last month, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson shared his first cupping therapy experience with his Instagram followers, showing off his back full of reddish purple round cupping marks. ‘Looks more gnarly than it feels, but overall I enjoyed the therapy,’ he wrote.. 

Many celebrities and professional athletes have embraced cupping therapy in recent years. A famous example is Michael Phelps– he appeared at the 2016 Rio Olympics with cupping marks all over his back and shoulders, prompting an increase in awareness of this recovery method. 

So what is cupping therapy? And what draws people to try this out? 

Cupping Therapy

Cupping therapy is a kind of TCM treatment which involves creating suction on the skin through negative pressure in the cups. The cups may be made of different materials such as glass, bamboo or plastic. Negative pressure is usually created by applying a flame to the glass cups, boiling bamboo cups in herbal concoction or by attaching a suction device to plastic cups. 

There are two main types of cupping therapy: “Dry cupping” and “Wet cupping”. 

“Dry cupping” includes:

Stationary cupping – cups rest on a specific area for 5-15minutes.

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Flash cupping – cups are rapidly applied and removed over tense muscles.

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Glide cupping – cups glide over a specific meridian pathway or muscle groups.

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“Wet cupping”, also known as “Blood-letting cupping”, involves making a small prick on the skin to draw out a small amount of blood into the cup.

How Cupping benefits from a TCM point of view

In TCM, the human body is interconnected via meridians and collaterals. The meridians and collaterals serve the function of circulating Qi and blood. When they function normally, the human body is nourished from head to toe, and from the inside out. Thus, the zang-fu organs and the body are able to perform their physiological function ideally.

When there are blockages of Qi, blood, or accumulation of pathogenic factors, body functions become compromised and pain occurs.

The principle behind cupping therapy is based on the TCM quote: “不通则痛,通则不痛” – “Where there’s stagnation, there will be pain. Remove the stagnation, and you remove the pain.”

Cupping is able to disperse Wind and Cold(风寒), unblock meridians and collaterals, invigorate circulation of Qi and blood, and reduce swelling as well as relieve pain.

In cupping therapy, a strong suction is created from the negative pressure in the cup. By deploying this suction on the meridians and collaterals, impurities inside the body are drawn out through the skin.

This action dredges the meridians and collaterals, which in turn, aid in restoring the balance between yin and yang, regulating the functions of zang-fu organs, and strengthening the body’s resistance as well as its capability to eliminate pathogenic factors.

Cupping’s role in enhancing recovery and sports performance

How is cupping therapy beneficial for athletic conditioning and rehabilitation?

Through creating suction and negative pressure, cupping is able to:

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  • lift muscles and stimulate blood flow
  • aiding in soft tissue relaxation and loosening of adhesions
  • drainage of toxins and waste products.

Also, cupping therapy gives the least discomfort of force as compared to tuina or massage. Essentially, it is like a reverse massage– instead of pressing down in a sports massage, the structures of the body are lifted up. 

A few specific conditions that cupping can address in athletes include:

  • plantar fasciitis
  • hamstring strains
  • sore muscles
  • back pain

How does cupping help?

Cupping therapy helps athletes to recover effectively from the strenuous training they subject their bodies to. Athletes often develop micro tears in their muscles and tissues during intensive training. 

During cupping, 

  • The muscles and tissues are lifted off the bones, allowing fresh blood and lymphatic fluid that is rich in oxygen and nutrients to fill in. 
  • These infusions flood the affected area and speed up the healing process. It may also help to form new tissues and blood vessels. 
  • As the tissues heal, they can boost stamina and performance.

In addition, cupping therapy is often linked with relieving muscle tension, myofascial stiffness, and muscular pain. When muscles and other connective tissues become stiff, muscle and joint movements are then restricted. Cupping therapy will aid in opening up the blood vessels, leading to increased tissue blood flow and even some rupture in small capillaries. This process is able to induce muscle relaxation through a response from the nervous system.

As such, cupping therapy can help to increase flexibility and mobility, so athletes can then train longer and harder. Since cupping therapy improves blood flow, muscular pain and spasms caused by restricted blood flow can be reduced.

Another benefit of cupping therapy is to speed up the recovery time after an intensive workout. After a workout. toxins like calcium deposits, uric acid, and lactic acid accumulate in the muscles. These toxins may lead to soreness, muscle cramps, and even muscle dysfunction if not cleared in time. An increased blood and lymphatic circulation will be able to flush away these toxic substances, aiding in the healing process.

Cupping also removes the inflammatory factors, alleviating inflammation and the stiffness in the joints. This reduction in inflammation is beneficial for modulating one’s immune system, as it frees up the burden on the immune system to deal with other potential issues instead, such as defending the body against sickness.

Still unsure about how cupping can help your recovery and performance? Cupping therapy is an excellent form of non-invasive treatment that can help athletes recover and enhance their physical performance through:

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Click here to learn more about our Sports Enhancement Programme.

Note: Information provided is not a substitute for a physician or any form of medical care. Individual symptoms differ due to different body constitutions and diagnosis. One should consult a licensed TCM practitioner for accurate diagnosis and treatment.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Physician Hao Li

Management Trainee

Double Degree (Honours With Highest Distinction): Bachelor Of Science In Biomedical Sciences & Bachelor Of Medicine (Chinese Medicine), Nanyang Technological University And Beijing University Of Chinese Medicine

Hao Li graduated with double degrees in Biomedical Science and Traditional Chinese Medicine from Nanyang Technological University and Beijing University of Chinese Medicine respectively.

He was a first-prize scholarship recipient of the Beijing Government Foreign Student Scholarship. He also received two gold medal awards for his outstanding performance in studies when he graduated from NTU: The Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal Award and the Mdm Chow Kwai Wah and Mr Law Ka Yin Gold Medal Award.

As a beneficiary of TCM himself, Physician Leong can relate to his patients well. He is keen on applying and sharing his knowledge in TCM in order to assist his patients in achieving optimal health. He values the importance of communication with his patients as he firmly believes it is essential for the formulation of a customised and holistic treatment.

View more posts by Physician Hao Li

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