Cupping Therapy - What Is It and Should You Try It?

Todd Sabol , MS, AT


You have probably seen cupping therapy, or the remnants of it on the news, in sport, or even in your own gym. The big, circular, bruising marks that accompany the therapy have raised many questions, raised concerns and have brought general curiosity to the modality. I have personally used cupping and have felt the perceived decompressive effects it can have. I also use this method of treatment with clients and athletes I work with, in conjunction with movement therapy and rehabilitation. The problem is, in the medical community and among scholars, the use of cupping therapy is widely disputed because there is simply not a lot of evidence that it provides consistent or proven results. So let’s look into the proposed effects of cupping, and explore if this is a method of treatment you may want to try.

The use of cupping therapy has been around for thousands of years, first being popularized by traditional Chinese medicine. There are various types of cupping, some more extreme than others, but for the purpose of this article, we will only be talking about dry cupping with either glass or plastic cups. Cupping is a therapeutic method involving the application of suction by creating a vacuum on the dermis of the affected tissue. The main mechanism behind cupping therapy is the combination of hemostasis, the stopping for the flow of blood, and hyperemia, an excess of blood in the vessels surrounding an area of the body, thus increasing blood flow to the area where the cups were applied. It is proposed that this vasodilation of the blood vessels and stimulated blood circulation increases metabolism and accelerates the elimination of waste and toxins from the body. This application of the cups acts to improve physical function and blood pressure seen by increased tissue temperature after a 10 minute application of the cups when compared to pre-cupping. Since these proposed benefits cannot be substantially proven, some have said that any perceived therapeutic benefits from the therapy may be from a placebo effect. One systematic review in 2015 looking at cupping therapy in the treatment of pain and disability from chronic neck and low back pain concluded that it may be beneficial in its treatment.

Cupping is considered safe for healthy people and there are no known side effects other than some tightness and pressure when the cups are applied, and the associated erythema, edema and ecchymosis or bruising in a circular fashion. If you have any underlying health conditions I would check with your primary care physician before undergoing this treatment. I would also caution anyone who is thinking about trying cupping therapy or currently using it, to not look at it as complete care plan for any injury. Like I said at the beginning of this article, I think it does have some therapeutic effects, but it should not be relied on fully and should be a fraction of thorough rehabilitation plan after an injury diagnosis has been given by a qualified medical professional. I will also revert to movement as being the ultimate medicine for injury treatment for musculoskeletal injuries, but if things come along and I believe they are appropriate for a client or athlete, and it provides them pain relief, then it is something I will add to a treatment plan at the correct time.

If you are going to try cupping therapy, you can buy a cheap set of cups from Amazon or other online retailers. When applying the cups, you want to surround the target tissue with the cups and using the suction tool, applying the suction to the tissue via the cups. Depending on the severity of the pain or discomfort, I would not leave the cups on for any longer than 10 minutes and allow 3-4 days between application to ensure you are not causing any damage to the tissue. I would recommend in addition to checking with your physician, that you consult with a medical professional when applying the cups to ensure they are placed on the correct anatomical areas of your body in correlation with the injury diagnosis you were given. Let me know if you have any questions, and always remember to #HealByMoving.