Typically an adjunct modality to support massage or acupuncture, cupping or myofascial decompression (MFD) is primarily a technique focused on myofascial layers of tissue. It is most effective, and most commonly used in treating pain and injury in the muscle and connective tissue layers throughout the body. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6] It is believed to work by primarily encouraging healthy circulation of blood and lymphatic fluids which reduces the accumulation of metabolic by-products, and stagnation between myofascial layers.
In an attempt to explain the efficacy of cupping in treating neck pain, Lauche, et al discuss possible mechanisms, stating:
"Different modes of actions might explain the effect of traditional cupping on chronic neck pain. They involve neural, haematological, immune, and psychological effects. Stimulation of the skin causes several autonomous, hormonal, and immune reactions; this also applies for injuries due to the incisions. Blood vessels in the treated areas are dilated by release of vasodilators such as adenosine, noradrenaline, and histamine, which lead to increased blood circulation.
In the course of cupping treatment, blood and other interstitial fluids are drawn out from the skin by the vacuum. Traditional cupping is mainly used in patients with local blood congestion, swelling, and adhesions of the connective tissue in the neck region. It has been assumed that these congestions contain inflammatory extravasations and toxins. Cupping might therefore take the pressure off the tissue and relieve the neck area from these toxic congestions, which also increases circulation and lymphatic flow. Since circulation has been shown to be dysfunctional in chronic neck pain patients, cupping might restore normal circulation. Increased circulation in turn improves oxygen supply and cell metabolism reducing the amount of inflammatory or toxic substances. This might also explain the significant effects of cupping on pressure pain thresholds at pain-related areas.Muscle spasm, congestion, and restricted blood flow can cause ischemic pain. Accumulated inflammatory substances in skin and tissue might further induce hypersensitivity to noxious stimuli, which is reflected by lowered pressure pain thresholds. Since traditional cupping is supposed to evacuate toxins and inflammatory agents from the affected area and to restore normal circulation, this might explain the local effects on pressure pain thresholds."
(Lauche, et al. "The Effect of Traditional Cupping on Pain and Mechanical Thresholds in Patients with Chronic Nonspecific Neck Pain: A Randomised Controlled Pilot Study." Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Volume 2012, 2011, Article ID 429718.)
While current research does support cupping for the treatment of a wide variety of complaints for pain and other disease [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], the following descriptions of the mechanism of cupping are still being studied.
We have seen in our studies and clinical practice that cupping has the following effect on the body, but note that these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, or any other medical authority and are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Please consult with a licensed acupuncturist, medical doctor, or physical therapist to see if cupping is appropriate for your condition.
Effects of cupping therapy:
Stretches muscles upwards from underlying bone, fascia and connective tissue.
Triggers profound muscle relaxation reflexes; releases tension.
Pumps blood and lymphatic fluid through tight, knotted or restriction muscles, removing waste metabolites, and bringing fresh oxygen and nutrients to injured areas to decrease pain and inflammation.
Active Range of Motion with Cupping:
Active range of motion (ROM) combined with cupping involves moving an affected set of muscles/tissues with the cups applied. This innovative technique increases the therapeutic effects of cupping by actively engaging and mobilizing the underlying muscles, fascia and joints, improving the pumping and stretching function of cupping.
Active cupping can bring about rapid and lasting reduction of painful trigger points and adhesions, as well as gains in muscle-tendon flexibility and joint range-of-motion.
By decreasing pain-inhibition to movement, active cupping can play an important role in injury rehabilitation and restoring normal function.