Massage cupping pioneer Anita Shannon explains what is massage cupping and how she modified this technique for today's massage profession.

Anita Shannon is the founder and creator of ACE Massage Cupping & MediCupping, a company she began in 2001 to provide education on a distinctive approach to bodywork using vacuum cups.

Anita has been published many times in professional trade magazines since 2002, and she continues her studies to develop ACE techniques, tools and applications.

Anita has been in the cosmetology and massage field since the early 1980s, and she has worked as a therapist in spa settings, psychological facilities, functional medicine practices and private practice.

Anita is also a MASSAGE Magazine All Star, one of a group of body-therapy masters who have dedicated their lives to empowering and informing massage professionals. These innovative therapists and teachers are educating the magazine’s community of massage therapists in our print magazine, on our social media channels and on massagemag.com.

Karen Menehan: Let’s begin with you telling us a little bit about what your life was like before you became involved in massage therapy and cupping.

Anita Shannon: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and always was pretty fascinated with nature and science. My parents were just really very inspiring, and always really fostered a love of learning for us, and nature also. I left Ohio in my early 20s—the snow and the climate were a little too much for me—and I moved to Florida. In Florida, massage therapy was really a lot more prevalent at the time. And from there I did have a big change in my life that pointed me in the direction of massage and bodywork.

KM: Would you be willing to talk about that change that pointed you toward massage?

AS: I think it’s a common theme for a lot of us, to be honest. I actually fractured my neck in a car accident, and was told I was permanently disabled—partially, but permanently. At 24 years old that just was not acceptable.

Somebody introduced me to a neuromuscular massage therapist, and between her skilled hands and integrating a very special type of yoga, I was able to get off all the painkillers and over the years achieved full function again. From there, I went into cosmetology … [and] as I got stronger, I decided to go to massage school.

KM: I know that you have always been a big proponent of continuing education, so I’m wondering if you can give a shout-out to any of those educators that have inspired and taught you over the years. 

AS: I think the first person who really rocked my world was [developer of CranioSacral Therapy] Dr. John Upledger. I was fortunate enough in Florida to live near his center, and took some of my migraine and headache clients up to him when I got stuck. Tom Myers, I have to say, was one of the huge impacts on me. I have studied his work, his books, DVDs.

The same with James Waslaski. I’ve gotten to take a few short classes with him. But I’ve got every DVD, because his work is really, really profound. Bruno Chikly and so many other people that are out there teaching about the lymphatic system, you know, it’s just a whole new world.

Dr. [Jean Claude] Guimberteau, that was my latest head explosion, watching his videos on the fascia and seeing hydraulic movement, and water and fluids running through microtubules, things like that. It just totally shifted how I saw the fascia.

And one last big impact was aromatherapy that I got to study in the ’80s with really great people like Robert Tisserand and Valerie Ann Worwood. There’s so many people out there that are truly amazing. And I’m glad it’s just such a great banquet for all of us to pull our chairs up to.

KM: No doubt. And when were you introduced to cupping?

AS: It started out in an acupuncture clinic, actually. I’d always been curious about Chinese medicine. They had five doctors and each doctor saw three patients at once. It was a big clinic and every doctor would put instructions for us assistants on the cupping techniques, removing the needles, everything we needed to do before the patient turned over and got their second side.

I just kept noticing something about the moving cups and what it did to the tissue. Even [with] the stationary work it was fascinating to see something melt. You know, just watch a trapezius muscle melt right in front of me, and as a massage therapist I just hadn’t seen anything like it. Then I started developing the techniques and looking for other equipment because the fire was a big concern.

KM: Yeah, no kidding. Fire is out of the scope of practice of massage therapists. Is the cupping that you teach today similar to what is presented in TCM?

AS: No, I went a totally different route, mostly out of respect for Chinese medicine. I didn’t want to dilute it because when something gets diluted, it can become dangerous. We don’t discuss meridians, points, anything like that. It’s pure, simple, very effective bodywork. 

KM: As a therapy becomes more popular, a lot of times what follows are research studies, as the medical community becomes more aware of a type of bodywork or massage. Are you aware of any current research that indicates the benefits and mechanisms of cupping? 

AS: I am aware of some research that has begun and there is already some research out there from a fellow in New Zealand, and a couple other good sources. There are people all over the world doing really amazing work.

The biggest problem we have when we started out is all of the studies were for traditional Chinese medicine, and that didn’t apply to what we were doing. So we don’t have too many studies yet. There’s one study that I love that’s going on very close to me in Charlotte. It surrounds the breast, it has to do with dense breast tissue, and they’re also looking at calcification.

KM: You’ve referred a couple of times to using cupping post-surgery and also to women who have had breast surgery. Is this a technique that’s particularly useful for breast cancer patients or people in recovery from cancer?

AS: Definitely. We’re working with healthy breast issues and also mastectomy and reconstructive issues. We’re developing actually a special program for breast wellness and surgical recovery, and helping people open affiliates or become affiliates around the U.S. so women have somewhere to go.

This is part of the reason we’ve been using vacuum therapy as a term. When people visualize a mastectomy site and traditional cupping over that they run away from you screaming. When you tell them it’s a very gentle pumping vacuum and relate it to them [as] more like a breast pump, then it becomes something that they’re more willing to try. 

KM: Oh, fantastic. That’s wonderful work. Why don’t you tell us about some of the other conditions that can really benefit from cupping therapy?

AS: Almost any restrictive condition. And again, mastectomies—surgeries—are one of those severe restrictions of movements. We have many women that can’t even reach up and wash their own hair. But once we work on them, and release that, they can function more normally again.

Athletic injuries are a very big one. We can really help with strains, we can help with tears in recovery, all kinds of different issues.

Scoliosis is a huge favorite of mine, because in many cases, it is an old injury that, simply, the body twisted as the person grew and compensated. We’ve had people who fell down stairs as children, all different things that we’ve been able to release … and their back has actually gone into a much more normal position.

KM: You mentioned earlier that you had a focus and experience with headaches and migraines in your practice. Is massage cupping effective for those conditions as well?

AS: It is. One person with severe migraines … I kept working over her forehead and temporal area and just couldn’t get any separation of the tissue away from the bones. Finally, after about six sessions, she did finally remember what happened. She walked behind her brother when she was about three years old while he was swinging a baseball bat. But we were able to significantly decrease her migraines. It was very controllable for her after that. 

KM: It is amazing how the body remembers these things that the mind forgets as we age and go through life. 

AS: Yeah, that’s why massage is so important and, you know, cupping therapies and all of these wonderful, different techniques combining to help people stay well, to help release those old patterns. I mean, the body was brilliant in [compensating] to keep us functioning. But at some point, we have to let the body know that it’s OK to let go of that compensatory pattern and move in a much more structurally healthy way.

KM: Absolutely. So, if a massage therapist learns the ACE cupping techniques or another cupping technique, will that person then specialize in cupping solely, or is this something that could be used during a massage session?

AS: Most definitely. We actually train people in the beginning, “please don’t try and do entire sessions for people.” [Clients] really like our hands, they come to us because of the work we do. I might integrate [cupping] in for about 15 minutes in different areas, not 15 minutes each area, but total, the first session, because I want to see how people respond.

But when I’m doing a lot of lymphatic work for severe congestion, things that we call solid bloat, things like that, that is pretty much 100 percent vacuum therapy. But the neat thing is we see clients for so many different reasons that my day is a huge variety. So I never get stuck in one mode or the other. I’m a massage therapist and I pull out whatever tools I need to use on that person.

KM: Cupping has grown in popularity among massage therapists, and so among clients as well. I am wondering about what the reaction is among Western medical personnel, like physicians and nurses. Are they aware of the benefits? Do they refer to cupping therapists?

AS: Well, right now, the medical field is being very careful about referrals, mostly because of the media representation of cupping of these big marks all over the place. So, many of them are very reluctant send somebody for that kind of work. We do a little different work, we do more medical massage work. We are working on scar tissue, we are working on all of these different conditions, and again, not leaving frightening marks on people.

The fun thing is, these patients go back to their doctors for a checkup. And the doctors are really surprised that all of a sudden someone who has had dense breast tissue for the last two years now is testing negative.

We had one breast surgeon that had told her patient she could not get reconstruction [and] there wasn’t enough skin tissue left. So we worked with her for a year and a half, [and] got it stretched, soft and pliable. And the surgeon was so excited that once she did the surgery, she was still in her scrubs, she ran for the phone and called us and told us that it was successful, and she was thrilled. 

So we are making inroads with the surgeons, but again, a lot of them still look at cupping and see what the media is putting out there. So we’re hoping to kind of re-educate [them] that it’s the same tool and people are using it in many different ways, all of them very effective in their own way.

KM: So obviously you teach massage therapists in this technique—do you have any other allied health professionals coming to you to learn about cupping, like chiropractors or other professionals?

AS: We do. We actually did have one surgeon come into the class. We’ve had chiropractors, quite a few chiropractors. A lot of the times they send their chiropractic assistant, though—we’ve had nurses and PTs, OTs. We actually have a PTA who is one of our educators now, a physical therapy assistant, because we were getting so many requests, we wanted somebody who spoke the language and knew that field really well.

KM: You’re one of the top people teaching cupping of any kind, and you’ve been a real proponent of moving cupping forward in the medical realm. Having been in the field for quite a while and being a proponent of this technique, what do you envision or hope for the future of massage cupping?

AS: That’s a great question. I just see, going back to what we were just talking about, an integration of our work into mainstream medicine. We really are a complementary, allied modality rather than alternative. This is something that really should be included in pre-and post-surgical treatment for everybody, and I do see that down the road. I think as we move forward with research and case studies, that those of us who just love this medical work get to be a part of that community and help patients to full recovery. 

The big thing for me is the geriatric population, though. We can do such amazing work because we’re lifting and gently pumping on tissue rather than pressing in. And I would really love to see this featured in a lot of the retirement facilities, in care facilities for geriatric, that’s a big one.

And then again, I’m getting into that age group in about 10, 15 years myself, so I’d like to be able to go downstairs and say, “Could you please help me with my shoulder?”

KM: Yeah, no kidding. I think it’s 10,000 Americans a day turn 65. I mean, the baby boomer population is huge, and it’s moving through their senior years. So working with older clients, whether they’re fragile in a rest home or active, older people is a huge client population that therapists could be reaching out to.

AS: Definitely. And I do really see the vacuum work and cupping therapy coming into these realms in a medical application, and really helping people. Like with my neck—the hospital and PTs and everybody took me as far as they could, and then told me that basically, I wouldn’t be able to work, that I would need pain medications and other things. When I integrated [complementary therapies] in, that’s when I recovered. 

You know, [bodywork] can prepare you for surgery, and help you recover, [and] we’re a missing little piece of the puzzle.

KM: Yes, absolutely. Is there anything else at all that you’d like to say to our audience?

AS: Well, I think the last thing I’d like to say is to keep your enthusiasm and stimulation through education, go to conventions and trade shows, meet your fellow therapists out there. After 30 some years, I’m probably more passionate than when I started. So I’m happy to kind of give that as my offering—to become part of the community and it will really support you and support your growth.

KM: Great, thank you. This has been the MASSAGE Magazine interview with Anita Shannon, the founder and creator of ACE Massage Cupping & MediCupping. You can learn more at massagecupping.com.

Thank you, Anita.

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