Cupping Therapy Takes Center Stage


During the two weeks of the Olympics, every four years, I am glued to the TV each evening watching elite athletes compete for Olympic glory. This year as the swimming events have been progressing, I, along with many others, have noticed purple circles all over Michael Phelps’s shoulders and arms. Many people, including many of my patients are wondering what they are. Well, it’s the marks that are often left from cupping therapy.

While you may be hearing about cupping for the first time, the technique has been around for a long, long time. It has been used in ancient Chinese medicine since as early as the 4th century.

Cupping uses one of two methods to create suction beneath plastic or glass cups.  Either the cups are heated up to create a vacuum or a pump is used to create suction. The cups are placed on the skin and the suction pulls the skin up and away from muscles and other tissues beneath. The cups can then slide across the skin or can remain stationary. This suction can cause some of the small capillaries below the skin surface to burst, and that can cause the bruising you see. Treatment doesn’t always cause the marks but it is a common side effect.

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Most often cupping is used to help muscles and other tissues to recover faster and reduce soreness.  This is why Phelps, as well as other athletes, have been using the technique. There are not many scientific studies that prove that cupping helps muscles heal faster. There are however some studies that suggest patients do feel better with cupping. More studies need to be done to know if the positive effects of cupping are physiological, psychological, or some combination of both. There are very few risks associated with the treatment and no evidence suggesting it hinders muscle recovery. Cupping may be a helpful treatment to assist in muscle recovery.

I have had cupping therapy a number of times. As a physical therapist and as a patient, I think cupping, along with other alternative medicines, does have a place as an adjunct to traditional medicine. Similar to massage therapy or acupuncture, cupping might be helpful in managing injuries as well as part of a maintenance program to maintain healthy muscles and connective tissue.