By now you have probably heard about cupping or have seen those strange marks on Michael Phelps and other members of the US olympic swim team. Cupping is an ancient technique used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as well as other ancient healing systems; and it is often effectively used to treat musculoskeletal pain. In TCM cupping is traditionally preformed with glass cups and uses fire to create a vacuum inside the cup before it is placed onto the skin. While the fire technique is still used, new methods are more portable and use glass or plastic cups along with a suction device to create the vacuum. The cup is placed onto the skin and the air sucked out creating a vacuum. As a result of the vacuum action, the skin and underlying tissue are sucked into the cup. The cups remain on the skin for 5-20 minutes and can be moved around to cover a larger area. But what is really going on and how does this help reduce pain?

While the exact mechanism of action behind cupping is still under investigation, there are several theories to explain the therapeutic effects of cupping. One explanation is that the vacuum created lifts the skin into the cup increasing circulation to the area, thus allowing metabolic waste such as lactate to be removed from the muscles (Emerich, 2013). Another theory involves neurotransmitters and the gate theory. This theory suggests that during cupping chemical transmitters such as endorphins are released. This release then blocks pain signals and decreases pain (Rozenfeld, 2015). It has also been proposed that cupping has an effect on the immune system. Cupping creates inflammation of the underlying tissue which in turn can stimulate the immune system and increase lymph flow (Rozenfeld, 2015).

No matter what the mechanism of action, our Bastyr Sports Medicine team as well as the Acupuncture Sports Medicine team have successfully incorporated cupping into treatment at our events. As a result many of our patients have experienced pain relief. For most patients cupping is a safe and effective therapy with few side effects other than mild bruising. Take a look below for an example of cupping in action!



Rozenfeld, E., & Kalichman, L. (2016). New is the well-forgotten old: The use of dry cupping in musculoskeletal medicine. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies20(1), 173–178.

Emerich, M., Braeunig, M., Clement, H. W., Lüdtke, R., & Huber, R. (2014). Mode of action of cupping-Local metabolism and pain thresholds in neck pain patients and healthy subjects. Complementary Therapies in Medicine22(1), 148–158.