In 2016, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps took to the starting blocks with some unusual body art. Deep red marks, all the same size and shape, lined either side of his spine and draped across his shoulders. This was no temporary tattoo. Phelps was using cupping as a way to prepare his body for Olympic levels of competition. For those of us who aren’t Olympians, cupping still provides benefits for bodily healing and recovering. This is what you should know.

What is cupping?

Cupping is a medical therapy that uses round glass or plastic cups on specific places on the body. Practitioners create a vacuum inside the cup in order to stretch out the muscles and fascia. It is like a massage, but in reverse. Instead of pushing all the cramped and tight muscles together, we stretch them apart. That way the muscles and fascia can open up and move freely.

There are several different types of cupping, with the following three being practiced most often:

  • Air or dry cupping: Air is removed with a handheld suction pump
  • Fire cupping (also a dry cupping technique): Fire is applied to the inside of a glass cup to remove the oxygen to create suction once it’s placed
  • Sliding cups: This uses massage oil to slide the cups into place and is typically used for large back muscles

Cupping is a modern integrative medicine technique. Cupping benefits not only the patient’s body; it also helps the overall healthcare system as it reduces the burden on primary care doctors for common conditions.

How does cupping work?

Acupuncture and cupping have many similarities. Both emerged from the experienced-based practices of Chinese medical doctors thousands of years ago and each has been the subject of increasing research. As with acupuncture, cupping is also used to stimulate circulation in the body.

While acupuncture does work mechanically, it mainly works on the blood, nerve, and electrical circulation. Cupping is more mechanical by stretching and expanding the muscles. Cupping also loosens scars and connective tissue and increases circulation to certain areas of the body. Your doctor places the cups along specific areas, often on important junctions and connections in the muscular skeletal system. You may feel a bit of tension on your skin with the suction, but as each cup is placed that feeling will go away. There should be no pain, and many people find cupping to be deeply restorative and relaxing.  Some people describe it like “being able to scratch an itch you couldn’t reach.

“The cups stay in place for five to 20 minutes and are removed by gently releasing the suction on the skin. You may feel lighter and calmer after cupping. Your muscles in the area may feel looser and less tense, too.

And what about those red marks? Unlike bruises that signify damage to capillaries, cupping marks indicate that blood flow has increased to the area – a good sign. They will fade anywhere from a couple hours to a few days.

There are no reported side effects from cupping, but there are a few people who might want to proceed with caution. If you have hemophilia or take anticoagulant medications, cupping may not be for you. Further, cupping should not be performed on broken, inflamed, burned, or infected skin.

How can acupuncture and cupping help me?

Beyond relaxation, cupping can also help with:

  • Tight shoulders and back
  • Accidents or injuries
  • Respiratory issues (e.g., cough, congestion, asthma)
  • Digestive issues

Cupping for pain is another potential benefit. This includes cancer pain and trigeminal neuralgia. A small but significant study also found that cupping improves pain, sleep, and disability in patients who have chronic back pain.

When practiced in conjunction with each other, acupuncture and cupping can provide powerful benefits to patients with few or no side effects.

How we help at The WellBridge Clinic

When you visit The WellBridge Clinic, an acupuncture and cupping practice in Portland, your first visit will include taking an extensive medical history that includes:

  • Current conditions
  • Past or chronic conditions
  • Treatments and other healthcare personnel you are seeing
  • Your short- and long-term goals for healing

After taking your medical history, we work with you to design a treatment plan based on your goals. We differentiate between emergency (or symptomatic) care that requires symptom relief and maintenance care that’s designed to keep all of your systems in balance. No matter your stage of healing, The WellBridge Clinic wants to minimize any invasive or pharmaceutical interventions and help you on your path to better health.

Our approach to acupuncture for shoulder pain

At The WellBridge Clinic in Portland, we recognize that many patients are likely coming to us when they have tried other treatments with no relief. Sometimes a friend or primary care doctor recommends they try acupuncture for shoulder pain and sends them our way.

No matter if you’ve never tried acupuncture before or have experienced years of its benefits, our team is here to help you learn more about this medical specialty and find relief.

Our functional medicine approach at The WellBridge Clinic guides our patients through three treatment stages for shoulder pain:

  • Symptom management or relief care: This is the acute stage of pain, when our team is focused on finding relief from symptoms. During this period, you may have more frequent visits to help you find relief. You’ve heard of muscle memory: sometimes our shoulders get a “bad” muscle memory. Our job here is to change that pattern and create a new one.
  • Corrective care: During this stage, our goal is to fix any underlying dysfunction, with symptoms becoming less frequent and less severe. During this time your body is developing a new habit: muscle tension is relaxing, joints are lining out, and pain levels are better, longer.
  • Maintenance care: Once you are feeling better, we move into maintenance with reduced frequency of visits. Each visit will be more like a wellness “tune up” to keep you at your optimum health so you don’t backslide.

At our Portland functional medicine and acupuncture clinic, we focus on finding the best treatment plan for your unique situation.

Stop waiting. Now is the time to begin.