Myofascial Decompression: Western Medicine’s Cupping Treatment

September 1, 2016 Updated: September 1, 2016

If you watched the Olympics, you probably saw what looked like circular hickeys on many athletes, including gold medalist Michael Phelps.

These marks came from a traditional Chinese medicine treatment called cupping. ‘Cupping’ is all the rage right now for pain, stiffness, and muscle, tendon, and fascia dysfunction. So what is it exactly and why do people wear those bruises so proudly?

Chinese medicine focuses on ‘qi’ or energy pathways (meridians) in the body. Cupping is used to help the body and organ systems operate and feel better by unblocking stagnant qi and blood along the meridians. So, the darker the color under the cup, the better as that means it is unblocking and moving energy into that area of dysfunction to help heal it.

Myofascial Decompression (MFD) is Western medicine’s equivalent of this ancient Chinese treatment. MFD focuses on the mechanical aspects of the human body. It targets tight tissues, painful areas, restricted motions, scars, and postural issues. It also incorporates movement patterns and muscle retraining. The goal of MFD is to release soft tissue constriction, reorganize the soft tissues, restore movement, improve circulation and reduce your perception of pain.

Karena Wu administers a cupping treatment to a patient. (Rebecca Young/Active Care Physical Therapy)
Karena Wu administers a myofascial decompression treatment to a patient. (Rebecca Young/ ActiveCare Physical Therapy)


MFD treatments use cups (glass, silicone, or plastic), and a hand held pneumatic pump (Chinese medicine usually uses a flame or heat).

The cups are placed on the skin with negative pressure, which allows them to pull up on the skin. This is the ‘decompressive’ nature of the treatment. It creates a lift and reduces the pressure of the tight overlying tissues.

Superficial blood vessels might break and fluids are drawn to the area, hence the ‘bruising’ effect. Bruising however is not always necessary and depends on what you need and the application of the cups.

There are multiple techniques of MFD and a physical therapist can assess your condition and see which technique might be best for you.

After the cups are removed, the treatment area is flushed to remove excess fluids using an instrument that assists soft tissue mobilization. This instrument is usually made of buffalo horn, metal, or plastic.

Physical therapist Rebecca Young does soft tissue mobilization on a patient after a myofascial decompression treatment. (Karena Wu/ ActiveCare Physical Therapy)
Physical therapist Rebecca Young does soft tissue mobilization on a patient after a myofascial decompression treatment. (Karena Wu/ ActiveCare Physical Therapy)

After receiving this type of treatment, you should refrain from icing the area for at least two hours.

Cupping marks can last up to 7-10 days so if you decide to get it done, make sure you are okay with possibly showing your cupping marks.

Not Just For Athletes

It is a physical world we live in. Athletes work their bodies’ non-stop and may even be compete despite an underlying injury. While normal laypeople don’t need to perform at this kind of level, we often have jobs that require us to maintain some level of fitness in order to get through the day unscathed and to prevent injuries. We often think of the athletes as the ones who need all that treatment, but many jobs lead to a lot of overuse and strain that might need some TLC.

So why not find a local practitioner to learn more and try MFD. It can make anyone feel better and you may gain admiration by being in the know about the most recent (or ancient), Olympic-level treatment.

NYC Physical Therapist Dr. Karena Wu is a graduate from both Columbia University and Temple University Physical Therapy Programs and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy. She takes a holistic approach and utilizes advanced manual therapies, Kinesiology Tape, and Pilates for rehabilitation.