If you watched the Summer Olympics, you may have seen the odd purple circles
on swimmer Michael Phelps’ shoulders. The Olympic gold medalist
has been undergoing a technique known as “cupping” to alleviate
pain and boost his performance.
“It’s a new approach to an ancient Chinese practice,”
said Sharmi Mukherjee, director and lead physical therapist at the Washington
Outpatient Rehabilitation Center. “Cupping refers to a technique
called myofascial decompression therapy. We’ve been doing it here
for a couple years to treat muscular stiffness and pain.”
In fact, Mukherjee learned the technique at a continuing education class,
from Chris DaPrato, the physical therapist and assistant clinical professor
at UCSF, who taught it to some of the Olympic trainers and physical therapists
heading to Rio de Janeiro for the Summer games.
Cupping techniques were developed thousands of years ago and have been
mostly used in Chinese medicine to promote healing, Mukherjee explained.
But in recent years, myofascial decompression therapy has been used by
athletes and others looking to reduce muscle pain and immobility.
Now the technique is one of the tools physical therapists at the Washington
Outpatient Rehabilitation Center use to treat back, neck, shoulder and
leg pain when it is appropriate. After a thorough evaluation of each patient,
physical therapists determine if the patient would benefit from myofascial
Less Pain in Half the Time
“The results have been amazing,” Mukherjee said. “Patients
who would have typically needed 10 to 12 sessions to get results are now
seeing their pain alleviated and mobility returned in half that time.”
Myofascial decompression involves the use of small cups that are placed
on the skin along the tissue where mobility is limited, she explained.
Unlike the Chinese tradition that uses heat to create a vacuum so the
cups cling to the skin, the newer technique uses a pump that creates suction
so the cups stay in place. Patients then move through their exercise patterns
with the cups on, she said.
“Cup therapy or myofascial decompression therapy basically improves
blood flow to the area, which has a healing effect,” explained Mukherjee.
She added that going through movement patterns under the guidance of the
physical therapist with the cups on assists in neuromuscular re-education.
“It works well with the athletic population,” Mukherjee said.
“We see a lot of people who play sports or work out regularly. Overall
it helps with functional mobility and reduction of pain in a short time.
But it’s just one tool physical therapists use. It’s designed
to be part of a treatment plan.”
For an appointment to determine if cupping is appropriate for your care,
call (510) 794-9672. To learn about other programs and services at Washington
Hospital that can help you stay healthy, visit