Health / Expert Advice

Cupping 101: Everything You Need to Know About This Treatment

Athletes may want to try this ancient treatment to help heal soreness and ease muscle aches.

When you’re exercising regularly and living an active lifestyle, it’s inevitable you’ll be sore once in a while. But it can be a real drag when aches and pains start to interfere with your ability to get through daily workouts. Instead of turning to traditional medications or painkillers, you may be curious about trying alternative treatments. These include acupuncture, massage therapy, and even cupping.

Cupping, a Chinese treatment that has been around for centuries, really went mainstream after the 2016 Summer Olympics. During the Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps had purple suction marks from cupping on his back. Phelps swears by cupping as a way to deal with soreness and pain during training and competition.

If you’re interested in trying cupping, here’s more about the pros and cons to determine if it’s the right treatment for you.

What exactly is cupping?

The marks from cupping may look intimidating at first, but they are actually just the result of suction on your skin, explains Kristen Carson, co-owner of Trinity Wellness Centre in Calgary, Canada. “Cupping is a treatment technique in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). [It] uses small cups that are placed on the skin to create suction, breaking up stagnation,” she says. “Most commonly, this is done using silicone or heated glass cups.”

Irina Logman, a certified acupuncturist in New York City and the founder of Advanced Holistic Center, explains that breaking up the stagnation in your muscles through cupping can help ease tension and stiffness. “You can think of cupping as a reverse massage. Instead of pushing the muscles down, we suck them up and loosen them,” she says. “In Chinese medicine, we explain that pain is a result of stagnation. During a treatment, we bring the old stagnant blood to the surface so that new blood can flow more smoothly through the body.”

How does it work?

Kate Klein, a licensed naturopathic doctor in Ontario, Canada, says that during cupping, the practitioner places the cups along traditional acupuncture and pain points on the body. “The cups can be plastic, which are applied with the suction of a hose, or glass,” she says. “Glass cups are applied to the skin in the traditional way, using an open flame to heat the inside of the cup. Then the flame is quickly removed, and the warm glass cup is applied to the skin.”

There are two types of cupping, Klein notes. There is dry, in which the cups remain suctioned in one place on your skin. And there is wet, in which the cups move and slide around. “With wet, massage oil is applied to the skin first, followed by the cups. [These] are applied with suction and then slid around on the skin,” she explains. During wet, or sliding, cupping, there’s less of a chance that you’ll bruise. This is because the cups won’t be in one place for as long. Both types offer similar benefits for your muscles.

What are the benefits of cupping?

“Cupping is beneficial for individuals with injuries, pain, and inflammation, as well as stress, anxiety, and other emotional issues,” Logman says. “It is even used for facial rejuvenation and cellulite reduction.”

Carson adds that the following conditions may also benefit from cupping therapy:

“Cupping can benefit overall health by removing toxins and stimulating the healthy flow of blood and energy, or qi [in TCM], in the body,” she says. “This can provide relief from a variety of conditions, including pain. In TCM, if the qi is not moving, there is pain. But pain can be decreased by stimulating the flow of blood and qi.”

Similar to other holistic treatments, such as acupuncture, the results of cupping can vary from person to person. While cupping hasn’t been extensively researched scientifically, the results look promising. One study of participants with chronic neck pain found cupping to be as effective as other muscle-relaxing techniques. Further research is needed to confirm its efficacy though.

Does it hurt?

Understandably, putting fire-heated cups on your back can seem scary. But Logman stresses that cupping shouldn’t be too painful after you get used to the pressure and the pulling sensation you’ll feel on your skin.

“There are very few dangers or downsides to cupping,” she says. “It often leaves bruise-like markings. [These] can last anywhere from three to five days, depending on the severity of the condition. Sometimes patients report feeling a little sore right after treatments, but that is normal, just like you might feel sore after a deep massage.”

Is cupping safe to try?

Cupping is not safe for pregnant women, patients with bleeding disorders, seniors with weak compositions, or those with open wounds. It’s best to check with your doctor to confirm that you can try cupping. If you’re interested, be sure to look for a licensed practitioner in your area who has extensive experience performing this type of therapy.

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