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Martial Arts: Injury Prevention and Treatment

Tight Shoulders: An old Treatment From China

By David Bock C.Ac. Dipl.OM FABORM

TS Photo 1 (Rip-please make this a large photo to the left with the copy of the first paragprah running to the right and below--thanks

The dream of many of those in karate, kung fu or other martial arts is the relaxed fast punch, strike or grab. Mechanically speaking, many empty-hand and weapons strikes require relaxed muscles in and around the shoulders. “Dropping” the shoulders into a relaxed position allows for a fast and powerful technique.

For some modern martial artists, this seemingly simple act is made more difficult because of their modern lifestyle. Many people have chronically tight shoulders. This can be the result many things such as sitting at computers and being stuck in traffic. Both situations can promote the habit of pulling the shoulders up in order to hold the arms and hands in specific positions (either the keyboard or on the steering wheel). The result is “knotting”, spasms and tightness in the Trapezius muscle. Often there are also “knots” in the Levator Scapulae, and Rhomboids. The result is a tightness that slows down the functioning of the movement of the shoulders and upper back. This can result in pain in the occipital (back) area of the head, neck pain and sometimes herniation in the cervical spine, as well as numbness and tingling in the arms and fingers.

Making a habit of relaxing and dropping the shoulders can eventually correct this problem. Regular massage and adjusting your steering wheel and computer can also help. Often these measures are insufficient to fully release the muscles. One very valuable traditional treatment for this condition is fire cupping. There are a number of Fire Cupping methods. Two of the most common are illustrated below.

Fire Twinkling Method (I have no idea how this method got its name): This is perhaps the most common method of Fire Cupping. At left is a glass Fire Cup.  After a tense back muscle is identified, the cup is heated with an alcohol fueled (cotton ball) flame for a few seconds, and quickly placed on the skin and held in position until cool, at which time the cup adheres to the skin by a vacuum. After treatment the removal of the cup is a simple matter of breaking the seal at the edge of the cup with a finger.




The Paper or Paper Flower Method: This method is very often used in China. After a tense back muscle is identified, a "paper flower" is made (left photo). This consists of a coin or coins wrapped in paper, the paper pulled upward to resemble a blooming flower, the coins creating a weighted base. This is placed on the identified muscle and ignited. The cup is placed over the flame and held in place until the cup adheres to the skin by a vacuum. Removal of cups is a simple matter of breaking the seal at the edge of the cup with a finger.

Fire cups historically have been used throughout the world, and are not specific to any one area of traditional medicine. Basic fire cupping technique is often considered folk medicine, and the basic technique is relatively simple. The tight muscles (usually on the back or shoulders) are identified. A special glass cup is heated, (There are a variety of ways to heat the cup, some modern practitioners use cups attached to a vacuum pump instead of heat) the cup is placed on the skin over the tight muscle, as the cup cools, a vacuum is formed drawing the tissue up into the cup and pulling on the muscle. The local muscles “fight” the cup. This is similar to the situation created if you hold a weight out at arms length. Eventually the arm muscles tire and release making it impossible to lift the weight.

The cups are left in place up to 15 minutes or sometimes “slid” across the area to massage the muscles. Eventually the muscle becomes exhausted and releases. The now flaccid muscle can be massaged into its proper state.  Often a topical sports liniment is applied to help the muscles recover after treatment.  This technique is repeated as needed over days or weeks until the muscles remain loose and relaxed.

Fire cupping is unique in the way that it forces the muscles to relax. Massage can also exhaust and relax the muscle, but it usually takes a lot of extended deep tissue massage to  accomplish this. Often patients who have used both massage and fire cups point out that fire cups accomplish in 15 minutes what it takes a massage therapist over an hour of concentrated effort. The continuous force applied by the fire cup means that the muscles can not retighten during the treatment. A massage therapist can only pull or stretch the muscle as long as their strength holds out. This means that the massaged muscle can “snap back” while the massage therapist adjusts their grip.

Heat will also relax muscles, but heat does not change the way the muscles are spasming. The tightness will return as soon as the muscles cool. Acupressure, Shiatsu and other pressing methods are limited in how far they can stretch the muscle. As the muscle is pressed, it will only stretch as far as the local structure will allow. The muscle stretch stops when the muscle is pushed into the bone or other muscles. This is often not sufficient to truly stretch the muscle enough to get the spasming to stop. Fire cupping pulls the muscles away from the body. The amount of stretch is only limited by the elasticity of the skin.  It is this extreme stretching under a continuous force that makes fire cupping so effective.

It is best to work with someone who has the training in fire cupping techniques to determine if they are an appropriate treatment. Many Traditional Chinese Medical practitioners/acupuncturists, other traditional healers and some massage therapists have the training to do fire cupping. Fire cupping is relatively safe with few complications. The only real concerns are bruising to the skin and possible burns. To avoid burns, many practitioners invest in modern fire cupping sets that use a pump rather than fire to create the vacuum.

Fire cupping is considered folk medicine. It is a safe and easy to learn technique, even for the non professional. The recommendation is to get a professional to teach you how to do the technique. There are some safety rules of thumb. Do not fire cup over damaged skin or open wounds. Do not fire cup an area, until the circles, or bruises from a previous treatment have healed. Be very cautious with treating anyone who has diabetes, is elderly or has very thin skin.

For the person who has chronically tight shoulders, Fire cupping can be very helpful in loosening up the muscles so that the shoulders move freely. The general rule of thumb is that the longer the muscles have been tight, the more treatments it is going to take to fully loosen them up. Loosening those muscles can help your overall martial arts techniques and skills improve.

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About The Author:

A regular contributor to www.FightingArts.com, David Bock, C.Ac. Dipl.Ac. Dipl.CH, is a teacher of Wadokai Aikido (under Roy Suenaka Sensei), a Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist, NCCAOM National Board Certified in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology, author of the online column “The Practical Herbalist” at www.lakecountryonline.com. He can be reached at www.hartlandorientalmed.com


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Treatment for tight shoulders, Fire Cup, Fire Cupping, Fire Twinkling, The Paper Method, Paper Flower Method, acupuncture, Chinese Medicine


Read more articles by David Bock

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