Myofascial Decompression... Cups, Movement Science & Michael Phelps
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
For thousands of years across the globe, humans have applied cups to the body for some therapeutic reason. If you ask a friend or family member if they are familiar with "cupping," they are likely to mention some familiarity with the circular marks left on the skin after treatment. They may even mention the media-frenzy surrounding Michael Phelps and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. To use the term "cupping" is a great way to start the conversation, but unfortunately it is not very descriptive. Michael Phelps did get treated with cups in 2016, but it wasn't "cupping," it was Myofascial Decompression.
What is Myofascial Decompression?
For the sake of this article, let's consider "cupping" as an umbrella term and Myofascial Decompression (MFD) falls underneath that umbrella. MFD is the application of cups (negative pressure devices) on the body with specific consideration of anatomy, physiology and movement science. MFD primarily involves active movement of the patient/client while the cups are on the body. The MFD-approach aims to improve tissue mobility and movement-quality by creating both mechanical and neurophysiological changes.
How is MFD Different?
One of the most obvious differences between MFD and other forms of cupping is the addition of movement while the cups are applied to the body. Most other forms of cupping do not include movement and the patient will typically lie still during the duration of the treatment. Speaking of duration... When using an MFD-approach, the cups remain on the body for 3 to 5 minutes whereas many of the traditional forms of cupping range from 5 to 20 minutes. Another difference to note is that some forms of cupping may actually include bloodletting. This is accomplished by creating small scratches on the surface of the skin and then applying a cup over the area, however this is not the case for MFD which is considered a "dry-cupping" technique. Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that MFD was born out of a "western-medicine" perspective while some forms of cupping have different cultural and philosophical roots. For example, an acupuncturist may use cupping with the intent of restoring the flow of Qi (energy) in a patient. Although cups are still being used in this scenario, the application and intent of the treatment can be entirely different.
The Different Styles of Cups
To further complicate things, there are even distinct differences between the types of cups used. With MFD, the cups most commonly used are made of plastic and create suction via a handpump & air valve. These cups offer the practitioner more control over the amount of pressure utilized when compared to others and can often achieve greater amounts of pressure. There are also glass and ceramic cups that create suction when the practitioner uses an open flame inside the cup to create a vacuum-effect. "Fire-cupping," (photo below) is more typically associated with acupuncturists and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine and would not typically be used with an MFD-approach. There are also cups made of silicone of varying hardness that do not involve handpumps or fire. Depending on the practitioner's training, experience, and the desired effects of treatment, one type of cup or a variety of cup-styles may be used.
Why We Use Myofascial Decompression at Mend Montana Physiotherapy
The "decompression" component of MFD is one of the more unique qualities of this treatment approach that we have found to be incredibly effective for some of our patients/clients. Most manual therapy and instrument-assisted therapies are compressive in nature. However, when a cup is used on the body the negative-pressure created actually lifts the layers of soft-tissues into the volume of the cup and can allow for increased space and mobility between these layers. The viscosity of the fluid between the layers is also decreased to allow for better sliding of the layers on top of each other. These effects appear to be amplified when the patient/client actively moves while the cups are applied. In addition to the mechanical changes of the tissues, neurological effects also take place with MFD-treatment. MFD can help desensitize the nervous system and trigger-points to allow for reduced pain as well as inhibit "overly-active" muscles. These mechanisms make MFD an efficient and effective tool for physiotherapists to use with a variety of people whether they are recovering from injury or trying to optimize their performance like Michael Phelps.
Wrapping Things Up
We hope that this article has helped you gain a deeper understanding of the wide-variety of cups and "cupping" methods as well as the basics of myofascial decompression. It is important to note that MFD is not appropriate for everyone and is actually contraindicated for people with certain health conditions. Although MFD and other types of "cupping" can be really beneficial, there is often the side-effect of bruising (circular marks) due to the amount of pressure being applied to the skin and tissues.
To learn more about MFD, consider looking at the Myofascial Decompression website [ cuptherapy.com ] or contact us at Mend Montana Physiotherapy and speak with Dr. MacNeill PT, DPT to discuss if MFD and other treatment approaches could be helpful for you!