Cupping Explained

For many people, cupping was first introduced to their consciousness when Michael Phelps showed off some hard-to-miss red and purple circles along his back and shoulders at the 2016 Olympics. Since then, you may have seen some of your gym buddies or running partners sporting these characteristic cupping marks.


What is cupping?


There are a couple different types, but the most widely used in clinical practice is “dry cupping”. Dry cupping is when a series of cups are applied either utilizing a flame or pump to create a pressure gradient that draws the skin up from the underlying muscle. This pressure causes some of the superficial capillaries of the skin to burst. Your body interprets those capillaries bursting as an injury and directs blood to that area.


What is the purpose of cupping?


Blood is how our body recovers and heals. Blood delivers the components we need to heal/patch up an injury and it also collects the cells that cause pain and inflammation. Cupping promotes blood flow to an area that has been identified by a clinician as irritated or injured.


Cupping can also improve pain. Pain is an output from our brain that we experience due to inputs from our sensory nerves and interpretation from our brain. Cupping helps block the pain signals going up to our brain by providing a different sensory input. Additionally, by directing blood to a painful area, it helps collect the inflammatory cells that cause pain.


In the clinic, I have seen improvements in range of motion during a single session. The physiological mechanism for this observation is not well understood.


What’s the down side of cupping?


The cups leave what look like bruises for a couple days upwards of a week.


Should I get cupping done?


Cupping can help with pain, healing, and mobility restrictions. Like all treatments, it is best if you are assessed by a medical professional that performs cupping, as they will be able to identify if you are appropriate for cupping. There are generally underlying body mechanic issues that cause muscle pain and tension. A medical professional will be able to assess those underlying causes and assist you with treatments in addition to cupping in order to stop the cycle of pain and dysfunction.