Nov 18, 2019, 12:09:27 PM CST Jan 30, 2023, 12:12:09 PM CST

Dry needling, blood flow restriction and cupping therapy: Do they work for athletes?

The right therapy, in experienced hands, can promote healing and strength among athletes


If you've heard of dry needling, blood flow restriction training and cupping, you may have wondered how these therapies work and what they actually do for athletes. While these techniques may be unfamiliar to some, their proven benefits can help injured athletes heal, recover and get back in the game.

Ben Seagraves, a physical therapist at Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, explains the benefits of each therapy and how it can help athletes regain strength and range of motion after an injury.

What is dry needling?

Dry needling uses an acupuncture needle inserted into trigger points, tendons, ligaments or near nerves to help relax tight muscles and stimulate a healing response. Though it uses the same type of needle, there are differences between dry needling and acupuncture. In acupuncture, a needle is placed in certain spots along the body to restore the body's energy flow (Qi). Dry needling for athletes, by contrast, is based on the body's anatomy and is used to stimulate a healing response. Children's Health Andrews Institute integrates electro-therapy with the dry needling that creates a light pulsing sensation to relax the muscles and reduce pain.

The benefits of dry needling for athletes include:

  • Increased blood flow to promote healing
  • Increased relaxation of muscles
  • Reduced pain

"You can get immediate results with dry needling," Seagraves explains. "If an athlete has a tight calf, we use dry needling to get a twitch response. This relaxes the muscles and enables the athlete to then complete a physical therapy session to strengthen muscles and improve flexibility and range of motion."

Is dry needling safe?

Dry needling is safe for athletes. It is a proven treatment to help athletes recover from injury. Needles are single use and disposable. Therapists wear gloves and thoroughly clean the area of the skin where the needle is placed.

Who can perform dry needling?

Dry needling is within the scope of practice for physical therapists in Texas. All the physical therapists at Children's Health Andrews Institute have special certification training in dry needling.

"It's not an entry-level skill," Seagraves says. "You have to understand the human anatomy to know precisely where to place the needle to stimulate the correct response from a muscle."

What is cupping therapy?

Cupping therapy uses a plastic cup and manual suction to create negative pressure and reduce pain. This suction increases blood flow to an area where the tissue is tight or painful. The pressure also helps separate the layers under the skin and stimulate nerves to help muscles relax and encourage movement.

"Think about what happens when you slam your finger in a door," Seagraves explains. "The first thing you do is grab that finger to create pressure. The pressure travels on a different nerve fiber, which reduces the pain. Cupping therapy mimics that reflex to help athletes recover."

Does cupping therapy work?

Cupping has been proven to work. This therapy started as an ancient eastern medicine technique and made its way into modern medicine in the 2000s. Most notably, cupping therapy was used by Michael Phelps in the 2016 Olympics, which made it go mainstream and increased its popularity among athletes of all levels, from elite to youth.

The benefits of cupping for athletes include:

  • Decreased pain
  • Improved blood flow
  • Improved flexibility
  • Improved range of motion

What is blood flow restriction training?

Blood flow restriction training (also called BFR training) uses a pneumatic cuff to restrict the blood flow to an athlete's injured area during low-intensity training. This simulates the benefits of a more intense training session without putting unsafe stress on athletes.

"You need 85% of your one repetition max to gain strength in your muscles – that means 85% of the highest load you can handle on an uninjured limb," Seagraves explains. "But, it's not safe for an injured athlete to put that much strain and pressure on an injury."

When an athlete cannot properly strengthen their muscles, it can lead to muscle atrophy or a longer recovery time. Blood flow restriction training addresses that by helping injured athletes safely regain strength in an injured muscle.

Does blood flow restriction work?

Therapists have seen impressive results with blood flow restriction training. This approach can considerably shorten the healing time as athletes can safely work their muscles at a higher intensity than they would typically be able.

"Injured athletes are always anxious to get back to their sports," Seagraves says. "As physical therapists, we're focused on getting them there safely. Blood flow restriction does allow us to get them healing faster while still promoting and protecting their long-term playing ability."

If you are considering any of these therapies, Seagraves encourages you to start with a sports medicine specialist. "A trained professional can help athletes determine which, if any, of these therapies would be most effective in their recovery and training."

The right therapy can promote healing among athletes. Physical therapist @Childrens explains the difference between dry needling, blood flow restriction training and cupping and how each can benefit injured athletes.

Learn more

The first pediatric institute of its kind in Texas, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our wide range of services available to help athletes stay healthy and improve their game.

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