The Efficacy of Cupping Therapy

Physical fitness professions, just like most other occupations, have their trendy new technologies and fads that take the field by storm. Right now in physical therapy, chiropractic medicine, and fitness; cupping therapy is one of these new trendy modalities. Cupping therapy is an old traditional Chinese medicine treatment. In the 2016 Olympic games in Rio, Michael Phelps brought this treatment into the forefront, after he appeared with large purple circles all over his shoulder prior to a race. Now it seems like at least once a week I see these same welts covering the backs and shoulders of many of fitness fanatics I follow on Instagram. Being in physical therapy school I try to at least familiarize myself with the treatments that are currently on the market being advertised towards athletes. I am definitely not an expert on this at all but this is what I have been able to learn so far.

The original indications for cupping included treatment of herpes, bells palsy (facial paralysis), low back and neck pain, acne, and coughs. Cupping is typically paired with other treatments whether it is other types of cupping or different modalities such as massage. So far there have been few studies to determine the actual effect of cupping, and the studies that have been done have failed to compare its effectiveness to other proven interventions. This means that cupping, when compared to no other intervention/treatment may have a significant effect on pain, flexibility, etcetera; but there is no evidence thus far to show that it is as useful as other conservative interventions including exercise and medicine. Most of these studies end up concluding that further research will need to be performed in order to determine if cupping has a significant effect on the conditions listed above. With that being said I understand that most of the people I see receiving cupping therapy are probably not suffering from those conditions specifically.

Other indications I have heard about for cupping, specifically for athletes, are removing inflammation and toxins from the muscles and fascia.   After watching many YouTube videos and reading online articles I was unable to find out what “toxins” specifically are claiming to be removed.   My guess is they are referring to lactic acid with is often built up in the muscles while working out, especially when performing resistance exercises. To keep it simple the body uses the anaerobic metabolism when it needs lot energy quickly and for short amounts of time ergo resistance training. Lactic acid is the type of waste that is produced in the muscle as a result of anaerobic metabolism. After it is formed to is taken up by the blood and transported liver, where it goes through the Cori cycle and comes out as glucose that then will return to the muscle. The process of removing lactic acid from the muscles typically only takes about 3-4 minutes. So unless you are receiving cupping therapy while working out during that 3-4 minute interval between lifts, I’m not sure how much it would actually help with that.

Inflammation is the body’s response to injury that is set off due to the release of chemicals in the affected body part. These chemicals draw increased blood flow to the affected area, which sets of a process of events resulting in swelling, pain, redness, and heat. When working out we are effectively trying to injure the muscle to create small micro tears. These micro tears will cause the muscle to repair its self to be able to handle the damaging stimulus (or increased weight) next time. In cupping the suctioning technique is supposed to increase the size of the capillaries in an area thus drawing more blood to that part of the body. Since inflammation is caused by increased blood flow to an area, I’m not sure how doing exactly that is supposed to produce the opposite result.

Although I am currently cynical of cupping, I’m not totally ready to rule it out. At this moment, however, I just have not seen any well-designed studies that have produced evidence to show that cupping is doing what it is advertised to do. If you are an athlete that is looking for short-term pain relief for the moment, similar to that of a massage, then cupping may be perfect for you! There is no evidence right now that it is able to reduce inflammation, improve training performance, or reduce pain long term.  But this is not to say that that won’t change sometime in the near future.



Picture Citation:

S.r.l, A. (n.d.). Offerta di cupping massage a Reggio Emilia. Retrieved from

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