A Closer Look At: Cupping

Among Olympic athletes you may have noticed something different in recent years – spots. Big red spots. Elite athletes from a variety of different sports have been spotted with – well- spots. But where are these markings coming from?

Michael Phelps, Alex Naddour, and Natalie Coughlin are a few of many athletes who have utilized cupping, an ancient therapeutic technique that has given them their spots.

Michael Phelps, male US swimmer, 2016 Rio Olympics

Cupping is a practice used in traditional medicine in which suction is created using a glass, bamboo, plastic, or ceramic cup. Negative pressure is generated within the cup and used to lift the skin and surrounding tissues. There are over ten different types of cupping therapy, each utilized to treat a variety of ailments. Most broadly cupping can be categorized in to wet cupping, where incisions are made on an indiviudal prior to applying negative pressure via cup, and dry cupping, where no incisions are made. However, treatments can be further classified by their power of suction, method of suction, and material inside the cup [1].

Since 3500 BC cupping has been practiced across several cultures. The earliest references to cupping therapy are found in the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt dating back 1550 BC. However, this form of therapy has not just been exclusively used by the Egyptians, rather it has been used across many cultures for thousands of years. In ancient Macedonia, cupping therapy was used to treat diseases and health disorders. Ancient Arab practitioners utilized cupping therapy to treat hypertension, polycythemia, headache and migraine, and drug intoxication. Hippocrates advocated cupping therapy as a treatment for many ailments in his treatise Guide to Clinical Treatment. Greek and Roman practitioners regularly used wet and dry cupping to treat a variety of diseases. To this day, Cupping therapy acts as one of the cornerstones of traditional Chinese medicine [2].

Today, athletes utilize cupping to decrease recovery time between training sessions, improve range of motion, alleviate inflammation, and reduce pain [3,4,5].

Research suggests that cupping may alleviate pain in individuals. A 2012 pilot study was conducted to assess the effects of a single wet cupping session on pain. Fifty individuals suffering from non-specific chronic neck pain were selected to receive a single wet cupping therapy session. Relative pain levels were measured through participant questioners and mechanical sensory and pain threshold values. Measures taken directly before therapy sessions and three days after treatment and were compared to assess changes in pain levels. Participants reported a statistically significant reduction in pain three days after treatment; however, because measures in reduction of pain are directly correlated with patient reporting, findings may be based on placebo effect or patient bias making it difficult to draw significant conclusions from this study [6].

Several systematic reviews (SR) assessing the impact of cupping on pain relief suggest there may be a positive correlation between the treatment and pain reduction. Several published randomized clinical trials including cupping interventions have been associated with a reduction in pain; however, these studies are limited by size and potential bias, and share a poor study design. Many studies are limited in longevity, participant sample size, and lack of a sufficient placebo for cupping therapy making it difficult to draw significant conclusions regarding the impact of cupping on pain relief [7,8,9,10].

Little is known about the mechanism of action of cupping. Several theories look to explain the pain relief experienced by individuals, including the following two:

  • The Pain Gate Theory: Chronic pain is influenced by altering pain signaling at the nociceptor level. Through stimulating pain via cupping, the frequency of nociceptor impulses will be increased, leading to the closure of pain gates and inevitably pain reduction.
  • Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Controls: “Cupping therapy may produce an analgesic effect via nerves that are sensitive to mechanical stimulation. This mechanism is similar to acupuncture in that it activates A∂ and C nerve fibers which are linked to the DNICs system, a pain modulation pathway which has been described as ‘pain inhibits pain’ phenomenon”[9]

The potential mechanisms by which cupping may alleviate pain are not well understood, and certainly require validation by scientific studies. However, in addition to participant pain relief, reported effects of cupping also include increased blood flow to the skin [11] and a reduction in inflammation [12]. These physiological impacts may also influence pain relief experienced in clinical trial participants; however, further research is required to draw any conclusions about the mechanisms by which cupping works to potentially reduce pain.

Although it is difficult to draw significant conclusions relating cupping therapy with pain relief, research study participants, athletes, and thousands of other people claim cupping has helped reduce their pain. Cupping has been practiced for over 5000 years across a number of cultures and has alleviated the pain of many. It’s long history of helping indiviudals enduring pain and illness gives it promise as an effective treatment method. Bottom line- whether it directly facilitates pain relief or acts as a placebo – cupping has helped alleviate pain for thousands of years and can be beneficial.

Questions to consider

  • Cupping therapy – placebo or effective? Does it matter?
  • Measures of patient pain have been qualitative in many clinical trials, is an effective way to evaluate the impact of treatment? Are there any other ways to measure pain that may be more effective?
  • Recently cupping has become more commonly seen in popular culture – featured in films such as The Karate Kid and The Gua Sha Treatment and publicly displaced on the bodies of Olympic athletes: what impact does the integration of this traditional treatment in popular culture have on public perception?


[1] Aboushanab, T.S., AlSanad, S. (2018). Cupping Therapy: An Overview from a Modern Medicine Perspective. Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, 11(3), 83-87.

[2] Qureshi, N. A., Ali, G. I., Abushanab, T. S., El-Olemy, A. T., Alqaed, M. S., El-Subai, I. S., & Al-Bedah, A. M. (2017). History of cupping ( Hijama ): A narrative review of literature. Journal of Integrative Medicine,15(3), 172-181. doi:10.1016/s2095-4964(17)60339-x

[3]How Cupping Therapy Benefits Athletes. (2018, August 31). Retrieved from https://www.communityacupuncture.org/2018/05/01/how-cupping-therapy-benefits-athletes

[4] Is cupping therapy effective among athletes?. (2018, January 13). Retrieved from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-02-cupping-therapy-effective-athletes.html

[5] What is Cupping Therapy? (Or Why Do Athletes Have Red Spots?). (2019, January 29). Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/129773/cupping-therapy/

[6] Lauche, R., Cramer, H.,Hohmann, C., Choi, K.E., Rampp, T., Saha, F.J, Musial, F., Langhorst, J., Dobos, G. (2011). The Effect of Traditional Cupping on Pain and Mechanical Thresholds in Patients with Chronic Nonspecific Neck Pain: A Randomised Controlled Pilot Study. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012. doi:10.1155/2012/429718

[7] Kim, J.I., Lee, M.S., Lee, D.H., Boddy, K, Ernst, E. (2011) Cupping for Treating Pain: A Systematic Review. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012.

[8] Kwon, Y.D., Cho, H.J. (2007). Systematic Review of Cupping Including Bloodclotting Therapy for Musculoskeletal Diseases in Korea. Korean Journal of Oriental Physiology and Pathology, 21(3), 789-793.

[9]Al-Bedah, A.M.N., Ibrahim, S.E., Qureshi, N.A., Aboushanab, T.A., Ali, G.I.M., El-Olemy, A.T., Khalil, A.A.H, Khalil, M.K.M., Alqaed, M.S. (2018). The medical perspective of cupping therapy: Effects and mechanisms of action. Journal of Traditional and Complement Medicine, 1-8.

[10] Mehta, P., Dhapte, V. (2015) Cupping therapy: A prudent remedy for a plethora of medical ailments. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 5(3), 127-134. 

[11] Liu, W., Piao, S.A., Meng, X.W., Wei, L.H. (2013). Effects of cupping on blood flow under skin of back in healthy human. World Journal of Acupuncture, 23(3), 50-52.

[12] Lin, M.L., Lin, C.W., Hsieh, Y.A., Wu, H.C.,Shih, Y.S., Su, C.T., Chiu, I.T., Wu, J.H. (2014). Evaluating the effectiveness of low level laser and cupping on low back pain by checking the plasma cortisol level. 2014 IEEE International Symposium on Bioelectronics and Bioinformatics.

No Pain, No Gain: Stop taking those NSAIDs!

Most athletes have heard the term, “no pain, no gain” at one point or another in their athletic careers, but this saying is truer than one might think. Having grown up in a household where sports were played year round, it was common to take over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (OTC NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or aspirin to ease the pain. Ran too far? Easy solution, take some Advil. Overdo it with the lifting? Take a few Motrin and you’ll be ready in the morning. It was even common to take these over the counter drugs before a workout, as a way to get a head start on the pain.

Ibuprofen, a common OTC NSAID.

Is there any validity to this solution? OTC NSAID’s are known for their ability to reduce fevers and minor aches and pains. With that being said, are they really useful for exercise related injuries or pains? Specifically, are they safe and effective to use for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) due to exercise?

DOMS is the pain and stiffness that is felt typically between 24 and 72 hours after the workout has been completed but can last up to 7 days. After a strenuous workout, the body responds with acute inflammation as a natural way to heal the body. This inflammation usually goes hand in hand with DOMS, but the specifics of this relationship have not been clearly defined. Many athletes try to combat this by taking ibuprofen (or other OTC NSAIDs) to ease the pain, but recent studies have shown that this isn’t necessarily a foolproof plan.

In a 2006 study completed by Nieman et al., the influence of ibuprofen was measured during the 160-km Western States Endurance Run on endotoxemia (the presence of endotoxins in the blood), inflammation and plasma cytokines. The study included 29 ultramarathoners who consumed 600 and 1200mg ibuprofen the day before and on the race day, respectively, and 25 controls that competed in the race but did not take ibuprofen or any other medications. Blood and urine samples were collected the morning prior to and immediately following the race, and subjects recorded muscle soreness during the week following the race using a 10-point Likert scale. It was found that ibuprofen use compared to non-users did not alter muscle soreness or damage. In addition ibuprofen use was linked to elevated indicators of endotoxemia and inflammation. One limitation of the study was that it did not have a placebo group due to ethical concerns from the race director, but they may have had an impact on the results. In addition, race conditions are not the best conditions to conduct an experiment under, as they can cause extra stress on the body, affecting the results.

In another study conducted by Donnelly et al., 32 volunteers participated in a study in which ibuprofen was tested against an identical placebo for its effectiveness in reducing muscle soreness and damage after two periods of downhill running. Volunteers took two 600mg ibuprofen or placebo tablets 30 minutes before each run, and took one 600mg tablet every six hours up to 72 hours post-exercise. Blood samples were drawn pre- and post-exercise, and at 6, 24, 48 and 72 hours and analyzed for indicators of muscle damage and inflammation. A questionnaire was used to determine muscle soreness for different regions of the body (the results can be seen in Table 1). The results indicated that ibuprofen is not an appropriate treatment for DOMS and muscle damage. However, one limitation of this study was that during the 10 week break between the two periods of running, there was no monitoring or control of the participants, which means their lifestyles could have been very different from each other, thereby affecting the results.

Furthermore, it is known that exhaustive physical activity leads to small intestinal injury and short-term loss of gut barrier function in otherwise healthy individuals. Another study, conducted in 2012 reveals that ibuprofen aggravates this exercise-induced small intestinal injury and induces gut barrier dysfunction in healthy individuals.

Based on this research, I have concluded that OTC NSAIDs should be discouraged as a way to mitigate the pain that comes with delayed onset muscle soreness. The data from the first two studies show that ibuprofen (and implied other NSAIDs) are not a satisfactory way to decrease the pain that comes from delayed onset muscle soreness. The third study shows that ibuprofen can be extremely harmful to the user and therefore should not be taken if it can be avoided. Based on this information, not only should OTC NSAIDs not be taken for DOMS, but the relationship between inflammation and DOMS should be more thoroughly investigated. It could be that the inflammation isn’t causing DOMS and that is why the drugs aren’t relieving the pain. However, the first study suggests that the intake of ibuprofen increased inflammation, the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do. Either way, ibuprofen and other NSAIDs should not be taken for relief from DOMS.

Questions to consider:

Do you take OTC NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or Advil when you are feeling sore after a hard workout? Do they help? Will you continue?

How often do you think people who exercise regularly take OTC NSAIDs? Should this change?

What may be an alternative to taking NSAIDs for muscle soreness?

Do you still think it is safe to take NSAIDs for other types of pain, such as menstrual cramps, headaches or fevers?

Further Reading:

An article looking at the prevalence of using analgesics (includes NSAIDs) in exercise – related pain

An article looking at the effect ibuprofen has on neutrophils (white blood cells that are an important part of the inflammatory response)

Last year’s blog post discussing at delayed recovery after exercise due to NSAIDs