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Cupping Therapy: Does it Improve Athletic Abilities?

Sep 21, 2017
Child with marks on their back from cupping therapy

Cupping is an ancient form of medicine that lost popularity in the western medical world towards the late 20th century. Lately, this method of therapy has regained popularity and is being seen in more rehabilitation clinics and gyms around the United States. As most noted during the 2016 Summer Olympics, Michael Phelps and other Olympians used cupping to aid in muscle recovery and decrease their post exercise soreness and pain.

Although cupping is being seen more often in the athletic world, physical therapists are using it more and more in the general population to assist with improving a patient’s daily function and pain.

This form of alternative medicine involves a practitioner putting special cups on the skin for a few minutes to create suction for a therapeutic effect. The technique leaves behind these painless circular reddish/purple marks which are a result of blood being pulled up closer to the surface of the skin.

There are two popular types of cupping, dry cupping and wet cupping. In both of these techniques one or multiple cups may be used depending on the practitioner’s preference.

When performing wet cupping, tiny cuts are placed to a post-cupped region, and then re-cupped again. The drawing of blood is thought to improve circulation and remove toxins from the cupped area.

During dry cupping, cups are placed on the skin for 5-20 minutes and may be left in place or moved along the skin in a gliding fashion to decrease tissue tension and improve mobility. Traditionally therapists would use fire to heat the cups to create suction but now the suction is typically created by hand-held pumps. It is believed that the main benefits are muscle relaxation, improved blood circulation, and decreased pain to the region being cupped.

While cupping seems like a quick fix, the overall evidence behind its short-term benefits are currently unclear. However, new research in the western medical world shows cupping does in-fact have positive benefits, specifically in decreasing chronic pain. Used in conjunction with other therapeutic treatments and not as a sole solution, cupping can be a great tool for therapists to use during their daily treatments to improve a patient’s mobility and musculoskeletal pain.

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John Caballero, PT, DPT, CSCS
Sports Medicine

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.