Written by Matt Frederick, Athletic Trainer at Chaparral High School
In a non-injured tissue, the microscopic fibers of the muscle run parallel to one another. This allows the muscle fibers to move throughout their range of motion without any pain or restriction. However, after damage is done to a muscle, the tissue does not necessarily grow back in the same parallel configuration. Instead, it can grow back in an intersecting fashion that reduces range of motion and flexibility, while also causing pain because the fibers cannot move freely through their range of motion; this is known as a myofascial adhesion. A quick example: the hamstring muscle fibers run parallel to each other, straight up the back of the thigh; but if damage is done to the hamstrings, the new tissue may grow back perpendicular to the other fibers, causing a disruption of the movement and increased pain because of the lack of mobility. The other consequence of muscle damage occurs when the layer of fascia that rests between the skin and muscle belly can adhere to the new tissue and contribute to the lack of mobility and increased pain. The purpose of cupping is to help mobilize this new tissue, by realigning it with the other fibers, while also helping pull the fascia away from the muscle, allowing full range of motion without pain.
As with any sports medicine treatment, it is important to look at the research to determine if this therapy actually does what it is theorized to do. There have only been a few research studies done on cupping at this point, but early returns from that research have been very positive. One specific study was done to examine the effect of cupping on the flexibility and range of motion of athletes’ hamstrings compared to a foam rolling therapy. The researchers found that there was a significant increase in both flexibility and range of motion of the hamstrings after cupping treatment compared to the foam-rolling group. There are a few other research studies out there that have found similar results that help validate the use of cupping in an athletic environment.
There are a few important things to consider with cupping therapy. First and foremost, anytime we are dealing with myofascial adhesions, it is going to be painful to get rid of them. This, unfortunately, holds true with cupping. This therapy can be very uncomfortable for some people, but the effects that it yields after the treatment are very beneficial to the flexibility and overall health of an athlete’s muscles. It is also important to note that this treatment is not magic; there is no guarantee that it will completely fix an athlete’s tight, painful muscles. But research has shown that it can be very effective, so why not give it a shot?
Cupping therapy is being used more and more in the Athletic Training world, including in our Athletic Training room at Chaparral; so rest assured, if your high school athlete comes home with these bruises on their muscles, they are not being attacked by an octopus while they’re at school.