Cupping made a splash during the 2016 Rio Olympics, thanks to Michael Phelps and other athletes who sported the telltale purplish cupping-ring bruises. Despite its new fitness-fad status, it’s been used for therapeutic purposes for centuries.
A Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice, cupping is performed by placing plastic or glass cups over muscles and using a vacuum pump or heat to create pressure and pull blood to the skin’s surface. Sometimes the cups are heated before being placed on the skin; as the skin cools, the air inside contracts, creating the pressure needed to draw blood from the capillaries.
Proponents argue that cupping promotes the free flow of blood and chi, or life force, reduces pain, and helps treat lung issues (like asthma), gastrointestinal disorders, and anxiety. Phelps and other Olympians lauded the practice as a recovery aid, much like someone might integrate cold conditioning to recover better and enhance performance.
“Anecdotally, most patients in our clinic report effective results for lung issues and pain relief when cupping is applied,” says Frances Wocicki, MA, MSOM, LAc, of Crow Heart Acupuncture & Chinese Herbs in Oakland, Calif.
The purported benefits have been hard to substantiate, though. Studies of the practice indicate it’s generally safe, but research findings are too weak to determine its efficacy.
As a result, there’s no way to make recommendations to pursue or avoid cupping; personal experimentation is key.
If you decide to try it, hire a licensed acupuncturist with a degree in TCM. Don’t let an unlicensed trainer practice on you, and don’t follow online DIY tutorials.