• Jennifer Truong, PT, DPT, OCS

Cupping or myofascial decompression?

You may have noticed some of the publicity surrounding these mysterious dark bruises on some of the Olympic athletes or even on some of your own friends around town. You might have heard about “cupping” or seen videos on the internet involving Chinese ceramic or glass cups and fire. If you’ve ever wondered about trying it or if it could help you in your injury recovery or sports performance, read on!

What's the difference between "MFD" and cupping:

While cupping has been an important part of Eastern medicine practices for thousands of years, in the PT clinic we do Myofascial Decompression (MFD). Myo = muscle, Fascia = the connective tissue surrounding and supporting the muscles. We have adapted these tools used in Eastern Medicine for its “negative pressure” (decompressive) properties for our use within Western Medicine and combined it with our deep knowledge and understanding of musculoskeletal anatomy and tissue physiology. In traditional Eastern medicine practices, the cups are placed deliberately on Chi energy meridians.

With MFD, we first perform movement assessments and determine restrictions in range of motion, muscle imbalance, and movement inefficiencies. We place the cups deliberately on targeted myofascial points, much like is done during other massage and manual therapy, and we can control the amount of vacuum with a handheld pneumatic pump (no fire!). We may also ask you to make specific movements during treatment to target these muscular and fascial issues. So in our PT clinic, we don’t do “cupping” in the traditional sense.


What's the science?

Studies have shown that the individual cups and the negative pressure generated within them can induce biomechanical stresses on soft tissue in a different direction from other manual techniques commonly used in therapy. If you think about foam rolling or massage, most of these stresses are compressive, while the cups create decompression, or “lifting/separation” of the tissue layers. These stresses can then stimulate physiologic changes in the tissue; in cases of myofascial restrictions where collagen cross bonding and scarring has occurred, it makes sense to use decompression to create space and separation of tissue for improved nutrient and fluid exchange. Recent MRI studies have shown that we can even affect fairly deep muscles with the vacuum generated within the cups, and that these changes actually last over time (not just temporary), especially when reinforced with PT exercises!


What can I expect with treatment?

  • You may feel some pulling, many describe it as feeling: intense, tightness, and suction

  • Your therapist may ask you to make some slow movements with the cups on/off

  • Treatment usually lasts no more than 5-10 minutes, and is frequently less

  • Afterwards you may feel that you can move more freely and have some reduction in pain

Will it hurt?

  • Some describe it as an intense feeling, likened to a deep tissue massage, but not painful

  • For the next few days, the area may feel a little tender when pressed on, like with an old bruise

What about marks?

  • This varies between individuals; some people show red marks and some people don’t show any at all. Marks tend to show up more visibly on the back, shoulders, and chest.

  • The marks usually last 3-7 days, similar to bruising, and can sometimes look like a rash or sunburn for the first day or two

  • If you have any upcoming events where these visible marks may be an issue, please consult with your therapist

What about afterwards?

Make sure to hydrate! Recovery is much like after a deep tissue or targeted sports massage; let yourself heal. It’s important to train your muscles to move correctly in their new range, so make sure to keep up with your exercises as instructed by your PT!

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