Licensed massage therapist Rebecca Brumfield is known as the ‘Hickey Girl,’ though it may not be in the way you imagine. The hickeys are results from cupping therapy, currently the latest fad in the athletic world. Athletes such as Michael Phelps were seen sporting these circular marks during the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
“They’re doing it to help their muscles, to improve their performance, and flush out lactic acid out of the area,” Brumfield said. “It’s kind of funny, because I don’t even have cable, and I didn’t even know it was in the Olympics until all my friends and clients started tagging me. I thought ‘Wow that is so cool.’ It was definitely a big boost for me.”
Brumfield’s first experience with cupping was after she was in a bad car accident and went to her teacher’s son for acupuncture treatment, and he performed cupping therapy instead. Cupping therapy involves heating up small glass cups, applying them on the skin, and then pulling them away from the body to relax muscles by promoting blood flow. Brumfield worried if the cups would be hot or if she would be set on fire, but she discovered that the cups felt cool to her skin and once removed it felt like removing shrink wrap from her body.
“I just thought it was the weirdest sensation,” Brumfield said. “It didn’t hurt, but I was just so fascinated.”
Brumfield then learned the basics of cupping, and during her travels to Mexico, she met Mayan healers who also conducted the practice.
“It fascinated me to know something that’s been around that long,” Brumfield said. “Like the Mayans did it, the Egyptians did it, the Chinese did it, and I just became fascinated.”
Afterward, Brumfield continued her education back in the states.
“I learned from a variety of different methods, so I think that is what makes me stand out a bit and makes it a little more special,” Brumfield said.
There are different stories to how this method originated, but according to Brumfield, the oldest text to document cupping therapy was written on Chinese manuscript.
“I don’t think anybody can tell you where it exactly originated, however, the Chinese did popularize it the most… all the ancient cultures have been doing it for over 3,000 years,” Brumfield said.
The experience is different for everyone, but as far as what it feels like, the closest sensation would be from playing around with your household vacuum cleaner.
“It feels like when you’re vacuuming your house, and you put the hose on your skin to make sure there’s suction,” Brumfield said. “There’s definitely pressure. You definitely feel it, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s not like a deep tissue massage, where you’re pushing down on the tissue. It actually pulls it up like an inverse massage. So it gives that vacuum effect instead of pushing straight down on the tissue. It looks scary, but it’s so gentle.”
And just like a vacuum cleaner, the therapy helps to clean up your system. Brumfield applauds the therapy for the variety of effects it has on clients who have conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis and epilepsy, which would otherwise feel painful during a normal massage. Other benefits of cupping include increasing blood circulation, flushing out toxins, relieving chronic coughs and even reducing the look of scars.
The color and pattern of the marks depend on the level of stagnation in the area, and range from a light pink to dark purple, usually lasting three days to a week or longer. But not all cupping therapy leaves marks, and the marks left are safe.
“They’re not bruises, because bruises actually damage the muscle tissue,” Brumfield said. “They damage the skin; they damage the nerve endings. These are just hickeys, and I don’t like using that word, but there’s no other word for it… and I think it’s important for people to understand that. While bruises leave damage, hickeys increase blood flow.”
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Photo courtesy of Whitney Tucker.