Cupping –Friend or Foe?

Cupping– Friend or Foe?


Recently cupping has been in the media thanks to the Rio Olympics showcasing these noticeable marks on the athletes, from swimmers to gymnasts. Wondering if cupping is just for the elite, or the average Joe as well? Cupping as a modality is nothing new, and in fact has been around for hundreds of years. It dates back in many cultures and serves as a way to draw out toxins from the area being treated.

cupping 3

As one can see from the bruises left behind –it serves to increase blood flow to that area, and thus can help with healing. It can also be used to release the myofascia which leads to freeing up muscles, which are tight.


This is a modality that we have at the clinic where I work. Depending on the individual’s diagnosis and how sensitive their skin is, I will use it occasionally. It’s sometimes a nice adjunct to the manual therapy I perform.

cupping 4 What it looks like initially after treatment

cupping 5  What it looks like a few hours later

I decided that with all the recent media hype, I would conduct a little experiment on some of the 3rd year medical students that cycle through the physical therapy rotation. Like all students, they spend a majority of their time at school and studying in often a very hunched over posture. Therefore, this population tends to have stiffness in their back/neck quite often.


These students agreed they would like to take part in this informal study. I took 2 medical students who have never been cupped before and cupped one side of their back. This way they can compare it to the other non-cupped side. I then asked their initial impressions and their impressions after 24 and 48 hrs.

Med Student #1

cupping 2 Med student # 2

cupping 1

Initially after cupping both students said they felt ‘warm,’ ‘looser,’ ‘felt like more blood flow to that side of the back,’ and that the experience felt like ‘a good pain.’


After moving around a bit afterwards, they said they felt like the cupped side ‘was already warmed up.’  


After 24 hrs., I asked them again what their thoughts were about the cupping. They stated the next day they experienced some muscle soreness like they had worked out and the marks felt a little tender to the touch. However, one of them noted that his back did feel less tight when he was studying. He also stated that he normally would feel a twinge across his lower back, but he only felt a twinge on the non-cupped side today.


After 48 hrs., both students stated they were no longer feeling the effects of the cupping and were back to where they started.


So is it effective? Initially, you do feel some improvements but if that’s the only thing you do, the effects will probably not last too long. If you don’t mind the bruises it leaves behind, it could be worth trying. Ideally you would compound this treatment with stretches and activity modifications that could promote lasting changes.

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Jessica is a licensed physical therapist currently living and working in NY.

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