Cupping: It Helped Phelps, Can It Help You?

Cupping: It Helped Phelps, Can It Help You?

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was seen covered in red circular marks on his shoulders and back before competing in the Rio 2016 Olympics. It started an internet frenzy to find out what these alien spots were with some going as far to assume he had been burned, beaten, sucked on by leaches or given hickeys by rabid fans.

It turns out that the bruises were the result of a cupping session, the ancient practice of topically applying heated or suctioned cups to the skin to decrease muscle pain. With 23 combined Olympic medals now in Phelps’ possession, cupping may have been a helpful tool in getting him there. Maybe cupping can help you.

The Mechanics of an Age Old Chinese Therapy

Used for thousands of years throughout Asia (and now beyond), observational studies of cupping have shown to significantly enhance healing, particularly through a decrease in inflammation.

A study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine describes cupping,

“It is used with one of several kinds of cups, such as bamboo cups, glasses or earthen cups, placing them on the desired acupoints on patients’ skin, to make the local place hyperemia [excess blood flow] or hemostasis [reduced blood flow], which can obtain the purpose of curing the diseases”

Cupping is performed by a trained practitioner, usually an acupuncturist. The traditional protocol includes the application as follows:

  • Soaks a cotton ball in alcohol
  • Lights it on fire inside the cup until it is very warm
  • Blows out the fire
  • Removes the cotton
  • Places the cup over the affected area creating a vacuum effect that brings blood to the area either for increased healing properties or to draw blood away from an area that is too full.

The cups are usually made of glass and there are many types of cupping which include retained cupping, flash cupping, moving cupping, wet cupping, medicinal cupping, and needling cupping.

Today, western practitioners have taken cupping into a clinical phase.

A Modern Tweak

Given its potential hazard, using fire for cupping is not recommended to practice indoors. Therefore, suction cups have been developed. These are placed over the affected area and then pumped enough to create blood flow to the inflamed muscle or other condition such as shingles. This method has been found to be just as effective as using the heated version.

In ‘An Updated Review of the Efficacy of Cupping Therapy’ published in the peer reviewed journal PLoS One (2/28/12) it was stated that,

“Diseases for which cupping therapy was commonly applied were herpes zoster, facial paralysis (Bell palsy), cough and dyspnea, acne, lumbar disc herniation, and cervical spondylosis.”


“Numerous RCTs [randomized controlled trials] on cupping therapy have been conducted and published during the past decades. This review showed that cupping has potential effect in the treatment of herpes zoster and other specific conditions.”

Some practitioners will add in a protocol of healing Chinese herbal remedies that are believed to be rapidly transported to the injury through cupping.

If You Try It

As mentioned, cupping is applied by a trained practitioner which usually means a licensed acupuncturist. This is because an acupuncturist is trained in the specific acupoints that can play a significant role in the proper area the cups are placed. In most states there is no license for cupping so being treated by a licensed acupuncturist is optimal.

The risks are minimal as cupping is pretty safe. When the traditional protocol is followed there could be possible skin burns if the practitioner is inexperienced. The pumping application produces tight pressure that will be felt with some possible heat forming at the site. Overall, you will definitely experience round bruises such as those seen on Michael Phelps and other competitors like gymnast Alex Naddour as well as Jennifer Aniston, Gwenyth Patrow and Lena Dunham other high profile cupping customers.

The prices can vary so shopping around is recommended however it may be hard to find several practitioners in a square mile given this mostly unknown therapy. Start with contacting an acupuncturist office or school for info.

If you are a highly active health warrior, cupping just may help you enhance your competitive edge, otherwise it might get you through that chronic or acute back pain without needing meds. In addition, as mentioned, cupping could also be an excellent adjunct to more serious conditions. It is a fairly non-invasive therapy that just may get you through your own daily Olympics with a lot less pain.