Steven Adams has lots of distinctive traits. The long hair. The bushy beard. The intricate tattoos. Still, my eye is always drawn to the circles on his left shoulder. Watch the Thunder for long, and you’ll see them. They’re about the size of a chocolate chip cookie, and they range in color from deep purple to faded brown.
They’re like the crop circle of bruises — not something that would happen naturally.They are the remnants of cupping therapy, and while Adams has been largely mum about why he has used the procedure — the big man generally doesn’t cop to anything that might signal physical weakness — he did offer a brief explanation during the 2018 playoffs.
“We’ll go with muscle relaxation,” he said then of the benefits he received.
Still, at a time in the NBA season when bodies are starting to wear down and Adams himself is dealing with nagging injuries, it’s easy to assume lots of players are looking for ways to relax, recover and maybe even rejuvenate. If they opt for cupping therapy, what are they in for?
I wanted to find out.
On a recommendation of a doctor friend, I reached out to Harmony Healing Center. Amit Gumman is the founder and chief clinician at the holistic health center on the corner of Northwest Expressway and Portland Avenue, and while cupping therapy is not as mainstream as some of the other services Harmony provides such as massage and acupuncture, Gumman said cupping therapy has ancient roots.
“It’s been used for thousands of years in different parts of the world,” he said. “Coming from India, I’m kind of biased, but it started in India.”
Cupping therapy got its start with Buddhist monks, who went from India into other parts of the world. They took their religion but also their practices, which included cupping.
How does it work?
Cups are most often placed on the skin on areas of the body that are sore, tense or painful. Suction is then created, pulling the skin into the cup. It is left on the skin for 3 to 5 minutes, then removed.
That suction causes some capillaries under the skin to rupture, leaving a bruise.
But why is cupping used?
When Adams went with muscle relaxation, he wasn’t wrong. Gumman often uses cupping therapy along with acupuncture to treat chronic pain. It can help relieve pain in the muscles and joints and even increase range of motion.
The sports world had its eyes opened to cupping therapy during the 2016 Olympics. American swimmer Michael Phelps showed up for races with purplish dots on his shoulders and back, and by the time the Games were over, we learned athletes from the pool to the track and everywhere in between were using cupping therapy.
It has popped up, too, in the NBA. Russell Westbrook had the distinctive circles on his shoulders and back several years ago.
Research on cupping is limited, but Gumman said some studies suggest similarities with platelet-rich plasma treatments, which have become popular with elite athletes. PRP involves an injection of blood plasma, and the platelets within that plasma trigger cell growth, helping in healing and tissue regeneration.
Likewise, cupping increases blood flow, which brings with it plasma. The platelets rushing to various areas of the body then help to heal damage and ease pain.
But before I went to see Gumman for my cupping-therapy session, I did some research of my own. I found photos of the procedure showing skin being sucked into a cup like a flesh-colored mushroom top. It looked painful.
So, does it hurt?
“A little bit,” Gumman said.
“It sounds painful,” he admitted. “It looks barbaric.”
“But it’s more relaxing, actually.”
After going into what looked like a treatment room at a day spa — pastel walls, massage table, soft light — I changed into a hospital gown. A few minutes later, Gumman came in with a red box about the size of a laptop computer. Inside were a dozen glass cups.
Shaped like tea-candle sconces, the bottom was open and the top had a plastic contraption. That’s where a hand-held suction pump attaches.
“In ancient times, they didn’t have suction pumps,” Gumman said, “so … they would use a little bit of alcohol, burn the alcohol in the cup or the horn and then put it on the skin, and that would create the suction.”
No fire was used during my procedure, thankfully.
But Gumman did place a heating lamp over my back once I laid face down on the table. Heat increases blood flow, so he uses the lamp to enhance the effect of the cupping.
“Normally, I would put a needle first,” Gumman told me, “and around the needle, I would do the suction.”
“You want to try that way?”
“So,” I said, “you do acupuncture and cupping?”
“I’ve never had acupuncture before.”
“Let me put one little needle.”
“This is a morning of firsts!”
I heard a click like an ear-piercing gun but felt nothing as Gumman placed the acupuncture needle. Then, he started adding the cups. One by one, he went from the base of my neck, across my shoulders, then down my spin.
He placed the cup, then with a couple pulls on the suction pump, he was done.
It didn’t hurt. There was definitely tension on my skin everywhere there was a cup, but with the exception of the one on my left shoulder, the sensation was mild.
That spot on my shoulder, though, felt like the two-finger vice grip of an angry mom. Like a never-ending push during a deep-tissue massage.
“You have most of your tension there,” Gumman explained. “The places you have the most tension will be the most sensitive.”
Still, it was a weird feeling.
So was the sensation of blood pumping to my back a minute or so later. There was a noticeable throbbing and pulsing as the suction pulled blood to those areas.
It was different but cool.
A couple minutes later, Gumman removed the cups, then asked me if I wanted to try a different method where oil is put on the skin so the cup can be moved across it.
“Gets a little painful,” Gumman said.
I had just survived acupuncture and cupping — I was ready for anything.
But Gumman was right. The second method felt more like a deep-tissue massage with that constant, heavy pressure pushing and kneading the skin.
“It makes the skin a little bit red, blue and black,” Gumman said. “Looks a little painful, and you can see the bruising there.”
Dave Morris, one of our videographers who came along to document the procedure, piped up.
“Wow,” he said, “that happened fast.”
“Bruising?” I asked.
Gumman continued working the cup over my skin.
“I’m going to look like I got run over by a herd of elk or something,” I said.
“Actually,” Dave offered, “it looks like you’ve been beat up by a muffin tin.”
That, it did.
But the rest of the day, I felt relaxed. Really. Less tension. Less stiffness. Odd how something that left my back looking battered and bruised had actually made me feel better.
Over the next several days, the bruises faded. The ones on my lower back were gone first, then these on the upper right side. But after four days, I still had remnants of the cups that had been on my upper left side, including the area Gumman had worked on with the oil.
It wasn’t painful.
Just a badge of honor from my adventures in cupping therapy.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
WANT TO TRY IT?
Harmony Healing Center usually does cupping therapy with acupuncture treatments, which cost about $90 per session. For more information about the procedure, go to HarmonyOK.com.