What is Cupping?

If you watched the 2016 Olympics then you probably remember seeing the dark circles on swimmer Michael Phelps. Cupping isn’t a new therapy but dates back thousands of years in Chinese, middle eastern and Egyptian cultures. There is a medical text book  called Ebers Papyrus that describes cupping done in Egypt in 1,550 B.C. Celebrities have made it more popular in the United States. The theory behind cupping is that the suction draws fluid in to the area; the discoloration is due to broken blood vessels just below the skin, much like a bruise.  It is often used to treat muscle tension, muscle soreness, pain and inflammation. It can be used to aid in muscle recovery and mimic the effects from a deep tissue massage.

Although there is limited research that proves the efficacy of cupping,  many get pain relief from the therapy. A 2015 review of the evidence found it may have some effect on chronic neck and low back pain, but the quality of evidence was poor. It is tough to perform  high quality research on cupping as the best studies are blind placebo–controlled studies in which the patient nor the researcher  know which treatment ( real or placebo) are given to the test subject. It would be difficult to come up with a placebo comparative to cupping. It is also difficult to measure pain and the placebo effect. With that said, if cupping helps you, then who really cares if it’s a placebo effect?

There are different kinds of cupping. Dry cupping is when a small cup is placed over the area to be treated and either a pump  or a flammable material is lit on fire and placed in the cup thereby creating suction when the flame goes out and the air inside cools creating a vacuum. Wet cupping is a procedure in which there are small cuts made and the suction draws up blood to the surface. At BEST, dry cupping is used with a pump to apply the suction. The suction can be controlled by the pump to be a minimal to moderate amount within the cup.  Cups are typically left on the area for 3 minutes to 15 minutes depending on the clients response to treatment.  BEST also uses silicone cups that have minimal suction  and are used to glide over the tissue mimicking a massage.

Cupping circles are dependent on each client. Sometimes the circles fade immediately and other times they are red or purple in color and can last up to 2 weeks. The circles left behind can feel tender to touch; like a bruise, for a couple days.  It is best to drink lots of water following treatment and apply ice for the tenderness.

The first treatment is the most uncomfortable. It is best described as an intense pinching sensation under the cups that lasts about 3 minutes then slowly subsides. After the cups are released there is an immediate release of tension. The real effects began 24hr -36hrs after treatment. Most will feel a tension release in the muscles and reduction of pain in the area being treated. Cupping can be done 2-3 times a week, although it is not recommended to apply a cup over a circle that is already left behind on the skin.

Cupping is NOT recommended for those with the following conditions:

  • Sores
  • Acne
  • Skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis
  • Bleeding disorders
  • Anyone taking blood thinners
  • Near the eyes or body orifices
  • Veins, arteries or varicose veins
  • Lymph nodes
  • Fractures


Want to try Cupping therapy or want to know more if its right for you? Call to make an appointment for a free screen with a BEST physical therapist.