Have you ever wondered what those crop circle bruises are that you see on people’s skin?

You may have noticed Michael Phelps with them at the Rio Olympics.

Was he beat up with a heavy focus around the shoulders? Nah.

Maybe he was abducted by Aliens and put through some strange experiments?  Probably not.

Maybe he was given an amazing treatment that has been shown to decrease pain and tenderness, improve flexibility, and improve muscle function.  Bingo!


What is cupping therapy?

This treatment is called cupping therapy (also Chinese cupping, cupping suction, dry cupping, etc.) and it involves using glass, plastic, or rubber cups over skin and creating negative pressure by removing the oxygen inside.

These days, the negative pressure is created by a suction pump attached to the cup, but traditionally this treatment is done by lighting a flame under the cup and quickly placing it over the skin.glass cupping jars

The negative pressure causes the soft tissue (skin, fascia, muscles) to raise and get sucked into the cup.
Cupping Set

I’ve been using cupping for years in my practice.  I was introduced to this treatment technique by one of my colleagues.  Since then I have experienced the level of successful outcomes that can be achieved by such a simple technique to administer.

I, myself, have also experienced first hand how immediate the pain relief from cupping can be.

Although cupping has gained recent popularity thanks to international exposure by athletes showing off their residual bruise like markings, this treatment has been performed for thousands of years by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners to treat various illness and pain.Cupping Therapy

How is cupping performed?

The treatment can be performed by leaving cups over tight or achy spots on affected muscles or by gliding the cups over muscles in a massage-like fashion.

You can also leave the cup in one area have the patient perform a movement or stretch.  This is called tissue distraction with movement (TDM).

Massage lotion is definitely recommended to reduce the friction on the skin and to make the treatment more comfortable.

Professional practitioners trained in acupuncture will place the cups over known acupuncture points to stimulate Qi (pronounced “chee”).  Some cupping sets even come with a firm metal projection that attaches within the inside of the cup and provides an acupressure over the targeted area.

The cups can be left over the desired areas for however long you are comfortable with.  most of the literature I have reviewed describes trials of 10 minutes.  That is the length of time I usually use in clinic as well unless it’s the first time.  The first time I will usually only do a couple of minutes to make sure my patient is comfortable.

How does cupping therapy work?

The negative pressure under the cups causes a localized area of reduced pressure beneath them.  Blood is drawn into this low pressure zone.  Studies using near infrared spectroscopy show that the blood underneath the cups has a higher concentration of oxygen as compared to surrounding areas.

“The treatment induced an oxygen elevation in the local tissue to accelerate the possible repair or function of the local tissue, subsequently giving rise to positive therapeutic effects.”

I often describe cupping by drawing a parallel to therapeutic massage.  Cupping helps release tight muscles by decreasing pressure over an affected area, whereas massage provides the same outcome by adding pressure.

Because of this, I like to use this treatment with people who experience significantly increased tenderness to the touch at the injured area.  Rather than applying pressure like a massage, I use the cups to decrease pressure instead and still achieve the desired effect.

What is cupping therapy used for?

Literature on cupping has been shown to provide the following benefits:

  1. Decrease pain
  2. Decrease tenderness
  3. Improve mobility
  4. Improve tissue oxygenation
  5. Improve function

(Keep reading for one more benefit)

“Cupping modulates pain and may contribute to reduced muscle guarding of superficial muscles and activation of inhibited postural muscles, which is the foundation for normal functional movement.”

“…cupping may be a low-risk, therapeutic treatment for the prompt reduction of symptoms associated with subacute and chronic low back pain. Cupping may allow patients to progress to functional movement training in a timely manner by promptly reducing pain and muscle tenderness and improving range of motion.” 

In my practice, I find cupping most beneficial for treating back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, hip pain, and knee pain.  Cupping can be used to treat all kinds of orthopedic impairments.

There is even research that suggests that cupping can be as effective as taking acetaminophen to treat osteoarthritis of the knee.

“The efficacy of treatment with cupping therapy in relieving signs and symptoms of knee osteoarthritis is comparable to that of acetaminophen 650 mg thrice a day orally, in terms of analgesia, anti-inflammatory and resolution of edema with minimal and temporary side-effects like ecchymosis…”

In addition to the benefits cited above, here we see we can add

6. Reduce inflammation

Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner may also use this to treat certain gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses as well as pain.

 Does cupping therapy hurt?

Although it may look bizarre and painful, cupping is typically a fairly comfortable treatment but it depends on how much suction is being used.

The size of the cups is also important.  The bigger the cups, the more comfortable the treatment.  Smaller cups may feel more like pinching.  I would choose the biggest cup that fits the area you are treating to reduce the likelihood of discomfort.

Mild discomfort maybe experienced with aggressive cupping over tight or sore muscles.  This can be similar to the feeling of a deep tissue massage or myofascial release with a foam roller.

Typically this is considered to be a “good hurt”.  It’s the kind of hurt you don’t mind as much because you know you are doing some good to your body.

The residual markings left after treatment also make it appear as though it is painful, however, unlike a bruise, these marks are not tender and only last a few days.

Can I do cupping at home?/ Where can I get a cupping set?

Cupping sets are relatively inexpensive and pretty simple to use.  Some sets come with a hose that goes from the cup to the pump.  This makes it easier for you to access hard to reach areas.

I’m finding that more clients are asking about purchasing a set for home.  I would say this is a great investment that I, myself, have already made.

Click below to get your own Cupping Therapy Set delivered right to your door.

Chinese Cupping Therapy Set
$25.95 – 12 piece Chinese Cupping Therapy Set

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Note for Therapist

For the therapist out there, if you’re not using cupping therapy as part of your practice yet, you are missing out.  I’ve already convinced many therapists to integrate cupping into their practices and they all love it.

It serves as a great alternative to soft tissue release techniques that can be tough on your hands over time.  For your patients who are squeamish about needles, you can suggest cupping instead of acupuncture or dry needling.

Once you start using it and discover how much your patients love it, you will get sucked in as well!

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Li T, Li Y, Lin Y, Li K. Significant and sustaining elevation of blood oxygen induced by Chinese cupping therapy as assessed by near-infrared spectroscopy. Biomedical Optics Express. 2017;8(1):223-229. doi:10.1364/BOE.8.000223.

Alycia Markowski, Susan Sanford, Jenna Pikowski, Daniel Fauvell, David Cimino, and Scott Caplan. Pilot Study Analyzing the Effects of Chinese Cupping as an Adjunct Treatment for Patients with Subacute Low Back Pain on Relieving Pain, Improving Range of Motion, and Improving Function.The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Volume 20, Number 2, 2014, pp. 113–117 ª  DOI: 10.1089/acm.2012.0769

Khan, A., Jahangir, U., & Urooj, S. (2013, October-December). Management of knee osteoarthritis with cupping therapy. Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology & Research, 4(4), 217. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=lond95336&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA351528828&sid=summon&asid=b0cc0c1b148673289213a51cd5c42961

What is Cupping Therapy