Exploring Cupping

Cupping therapy has a higher profile these days—but what is it?

by Rob Zukowski

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There are some wild and very unique types of therapies that exist. Sometimes I will write about therapeutic options that I fully recommend. Other times however, I like to provide you with a base of information so that you explore a therapy, do your research, and can make your own informed decisions. Very recently I had the opportunity to try cupping therapy. Cupping may be something that you may want to look into, depending on your own needs and medical history. But I urge you to do your research and speak with your doctors.

Cupping began to make its way into the mainstream view and gain popularity when a variety of athletes were seen with the unmistakable marks that result from cupping—round, circular bruising of the skin. Most notable was the Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps, who was seen with the marks back in 2016. You can find a variety of articles online that refer to athletes and cupping therapy. So, what is it?

Though it has only become more common in recent years, it is said to date back quite a long time with roots in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures. In fact, the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical documents in the world makes note of describes how ancient Egyptians used cupping therapy as far back as 1,550 BCE.

The cups themselves can be made from a variety of different materials. Typically they made of hard plastic, glass, bamboo, earthenware, or silicone. The process of cupping involves attaching the rounded, inverted cups to certain parts of the body and using a vacuum effect. Those who practice and partake of cupping therapy say that it can increase blood flow to the area and also helps break up adhesions, or knots, in superficial connective tissue and muscle tissue. Unlike traditional massage therapy, cupping lifts tissue instead of applying a downward pressure.

There are others who practice their trade from a more traditional Chinese medicine point of view, who say that it helps to aid on the flow of qi, or energy, throughout the body. We have talked about qi before in articles pertaining to other traditional Chinese medicine treatments such as shiatsu and acupuncture.

Cupping is often recommended as a complementary therapy for back, knee, muscle, and shoulder pain, headaches, and sports injuries and to enhance physical performance and energetic flow.

There are many different ways that cupping is implemented. For some, in order to create suction inside the cups, the practitioner may start by placing a flammable substance (such as herbs, alcohol, and/or paper) inside each cup and then igniting that substance. This is said to cause the suction. It seems to be more common today for practitioners to use a manual or electric pump to create the vacuum, or use self-suctioning cupping sets. The session I had did not use fire or mechanical devices. Instead my therapist applied oil and then attached the cups. This was followed by sliding the cups around my back for a massage like effect. Personally, I found it quite helpful in breaking up chronic knots in my back, glutes and legs.

There is also a process called wet cupping. This is when the skin is punctured prior to treatment to cause blood to flow out of the punctures during the cupping procedure, which is thought to clear toxins from the body. It goes without saying that the practitioner you see must take all the necessary and recommended precautions where punctures or bodily fluids are involved. I cannot highlight the need for safety precautions enough.

Does cupping sound like an extreme form of complementary and alternative therapy? Yes, it does. Truthfully, there is no high quality, scientific research to support the use of cupping to treat any health condition. But. I am also a believer in trying new things once I have done all the proper research, vetted the practitioner accordingly and spoken with my medical doctors.

There are potential side effects that come along with cupping. Depending on the particular process you choose, cupping may cause pain, swelling, burns, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, skin pigmentation, and/or nausea. Cupping also leaves circular bruises on the skin; these marks may begin to fade after several days but can last for several weeks. Cupping shouldn’t be done on areas where the skin is broken, irritated, or inflamed, or over arteries, veins, lymph nodes, eyes, orifices, or any fractures. Pregnant woman, children, older adults, and people with certain illnesses should not tray cupping. As always, do your research, speak to your chosen practitioner and speak with your medical doctor before engaging in cupping or any complementary or alternative therapy.


Rob Zukowski is a New York State licensed Massage Therapist, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. In addition, he has advanced training in Sports Massage and sports-related injuries, various relaxation therapies, and massage for oncology. His experience includes working in medical facilities, corporate health environments, wellness centers, and spas. In addition to his hands-on work, he is a writer, manages a wellness center, arranges corporate wellness events, works in private practice and lectures in the field of therapeutic massage therapy. You can contact him directly at [email protected]m.