by Cristina Betto. Photograph courtesy of Art of Acupuncture

During the recent Rio Olympic Games, several athletes; including swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Alex Naddour, were spotted covered in what appeared to be ‘bruises’.  However it transpired that the purple circular marks were a result of cupping, and this set off a hysteria of online searches for the what, why, and how of this ancient therapy.

It was about 10 years ago when cupping first appeared in the tabloid press. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow showed up on the red carpet with cupping marks visible on her back. A wave of other celebrities from Jennifer Aniston, Justin Bieber to Victoria Beckham soon acknowledged that they also used the therapy.

Although cupping is most commonly associated with Chinese Medicine, this therapy is not exclusive to China. Variations of the treatment have been used by the ancient Egyptians, North American Indians, early Greeks, and other Asian and European cultures. Hippocrates, the man who many consider to be the father of modern medicine, was a proponent of the therapy.

There are different types of cupping therapy, the most common are ‘fire’ and suction cupping. In fire cupping, a flame is used to create a vacuum, before the cups are quickly applied to the skin. Suction cupping uses a pump to create a vacuum in either glass or plastic cups. The cups usually stay in place for between 5-15 minutes.

How does it work?

One way to think about cupping is that is the inverse of massage. Rather than applying pressure to muscle, the skin is gently drawn upwards by the vacuum in the cup. This action increases local blood circulation, pulling blood to the region to stimulate healing. It triggers anti-inflammatory chemicals, helps detoxify metabolic debris in muscle tissue, fascia and skin, and increases lymphatic drainage.

What are the benefits?

The process of cupping can help increase range of motion in a joint, break up adhesions, and promote healing in scar tissue. The technique encourages oxygenation and detoxification of blood while promoting a feeling of lightness and relief of tension.

Recent clinical trials have shown the effectiveness of cupping therapy in relieving symptoms in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee and also in patients suffering with chronic neck and shoulder pain.


Does cupping hurt?

While the marks look painful, they aren’t! The marks are due to lactic acid, lymph, stagnant blood, medications or other toxins that have been stuck deep in the tissue being drawn to the surface by the suction. This allows the body to effectively flush these toxins out and healthy circulation to be restored to the affected area.

How long will the marks last?

The more severe or chronic is an issue, the deeper is the colour of the marks, and the longer they last. They may take a few hours or a few days to fade completely. This is important to remember if you have a special event to attend!

 Are there any contraindications?

For 24 hours after a cupping session it is advisable to avoid exposure of the marks to a steam room or sauna, cold air conditioning or the sun. Cupping opens your skin pores, making you more prone to catching a cold.

It should be noted that cupping is not be used on patients with bleeding disorders. It is unwise to cup over skin ulcers, rashes, oedema or large blood vessels. Pregnant women should be cupped with extreme caution and never on their abdomen or lower back.



  • Ilkay Z. Chirali, “Traditional Chinese Medicine Cupping Therapy” – 4th (2014) Elsevier Health Science
  • Dr Axe, Cupping Therapy: Alternative Medicine for Pain, Immunity & Digestion
  • Emma Suttie, “What is Cupping?” Chinese Medicine Living


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