Bucs players latest to use ancient 'cupping therapy' for recovery

TAMPA, Fla. -- The NFL season is more than halfway finished, but Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Akeem Spence is feeling like a brand-new man. He doesn't care if that means having large purple dots all over his back, the result of cupping therapy, a traditional Chinese medicinal technique that utilizes suction cups to increase blood flow to certain areas of the body and promote healing.

"I started doing it probably like the second week of the season," said Spence, 24, and now in his fourth year in the league. He's graduated from 'new kid on the block' to 'veteran' status. "I put it on for 15 minutes and haven't had to worry about my back. I feel great. I feel young again almost."

With cupping, also known as 'myofascial decompression,' suction cups of various sizes are placed all over the body or on a particular area, depending on the athlete's specific needs. The idea is to create a vacuum, lifting the skin and pulling blood to an affected region. The result is increased range of motion and accelerated healing.

The marks are from broken capillaries. The bruises last anywhere from three days to a week, and range from light pink to deep red and dark purple, depending on the blood's level of stagnation. Sometimes blisters and black patches can even occur. The marks usually become less severe with more treatments, assuming there is no new illness or injury.

"The first time, it hurt like heck -- not gonna lie -- because I didn’t know what to expect with the different pumps, the different suction ability," said Spence, who added "After the first time it's easy because you feel great, you feel the blood flow, you feel like your back like loosen up for a whole week."

Chinese medicinal practitioners have used it for thousands of years for general health and wellness. American athletes -- from Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin to gold-medal gymnast Aly Raisman and now NFL players -- are using it to recuperate faster from practices and competition, as well as injury prevention and recovery.

Some athletes have it done to large muscle groups like the back, or at the spot of a soft tissue injury, like a pulled hamstring. They even make smaller cups for the feet, calves and ankles. Some athletes like it so much that they even have their own cupping sets.

"Monday morning, I'm on it before noon," said Spence, who does it twice a week. "The quicker you can get it in [the better], because that's more time you have to recover, the more time you have to drink water, get the fluids pumping and everything like that."

"By the time Wednesday rolls around for full pads, I'm like ready to go. I'm ready to almost go out and play another game," Spence said. "He'll have it done again on Thursdays to help with recovery from the week's practices and leave him feeling refreshed for games. "Friday, I'm out there flying around -- I'm feeling great."

Spence got the idea from teammate and fellow defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who utilized the technique when he was in Seattle with the Seahawks. McDonald also used it in his recovery from a hamstring injury in Week 4, which forced him to miss four weeks of the season.

"I use it probably once or twice [per week] when I get a massage," said McDonald, 29, who also does acupuncture, massage and chiropractic work to help with his recovery. "They do a thing called 'fire-cupping'. I haven't had fire cupping done since I left Seattle. There's a guy who did accupuncture who also did fire cupping."

He, too, also learned about it from a teammate, running back Cedric Benson, whom he spent a year with in Cincinnati. Benson produced three 1,000-yard seasons at the latter part of his career there, after the hits had already accumulated. He retired after the 2012 season, having spent eight years in the league.

"He told me about the acupuncture. He told me about the cupping," said McDonald, who also learned about the importance of proper nutrition for performance and career longevity. "It was kind of interesting for a guy of his caliber, at the time, to talk about cupping and acupuncture and how it helps him out on the field. I tried it and I've liked it so far."