What is cupping?

Chinese swimmer Wang Qun is seen with marks after cupping treatment during a training session at the National Aquatics Center a few days before the start of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August, 04 2008. There are 32 swimming gold medals up for grabs at the Olympics, making it the second most prolific sport behind track and field. AFP PHOTO / DDP / MICHAEL KAPPELER (Photo credit should read MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images)

What is cupping?

The internet has been abuzz with photos and articles describing the round red circles found on many of the athlete’s at the Rio Olympic games. These are the result of a therapy called, cupping. So what is cupping? Is it useful for non-athletes or just world’s elite? Many of the articles I’ve seen recently are a bit misleading, so I wanted to chime in on just what cupping is, and why it may or may not be the right therapy for you.

Without getting too deep, cupping originated in China many years ago and was/still is used as a way to balance heat within the body. I have had a few Chinese patients tell me about how their grandparents used to use cupping to alleviate fevers when they were children by “drawing heat to the surface”.

In the US, many healthcare practitioners have started using cupping as a way of manipulating fascia in the body to help alleviate muscle soreness or pain, OR to help bring blood to an area to help with healing (more blood = more oxygen). For example, if one’s forearm was hurting from excessive typing, painting, or racquet sports, one form of therapy could be to apply multiple cups along the top or bottom of the forearm in an attempt to bring blood to that area and “unwind” any fascial knots. Although it looks like it would be painful, it’s not. Most patients describe it as being mildly uncomfortable but not painful.


In theory this is a good idea, but many practitioners jump into cupping too quickly, or with the idea that cupping in and of itself is going to solve the problem. While it is a useful tool, oftentimes manual manipulation of a muscle (including cupping) can lead to the muscle becoming aggravated. Muscles don’t have a mind of their own, and they don’t get tight or sore just because they feel like it. In the absence of trauma, it is usually a biomechanics fault that is causing the sore or painful muscle, so it’s important to also assess the joints above and below the problem area, as well as address any potential causes of the dysfunction such as workplace ergonomics, form while playing a sport, etc.

We prefer to use a neurologic approach to address these areas, first using cranial specific therapies and proprioceptive feedback to get the muscle to relax. Of course we would also assess and potentially treat any issues in the joints above or below the area of pain. Once the problem area starts letting go, then it’s safe to add a manual therapy, such as graston, cupping, or cross friction, though at that point they are often not needed anyway. Kinesio taping (k-tape) is also a good adjunctive therapy that is usually well tolerated and helps the body adapt to the changes made by the practitioner, though it’s effectiveness as a stand alone treatment is extremely limited. For a healthy, non dysfunctional muscle that is, for example, simply sore from exercise, cupping can be useful in helping to speed up the recovery time of that area.

Do you have an unresolved muscle ache or soreness? Have questions about your specific problem? Phone consultations with the doctor are free, and a good way to determine if our office is the right one for you.
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