Cupping Therapy Relieves Pain

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Many athletes and artists use cupping treatments to relieve pain and enhance recovery. The awareness of this treatment increased dramatically at the Barcelona Olympics when Michael Thorpe launched the ancient treatment of cupping into the limelight.

The Orthopaedic Therapy Clinic

Many people wondered what the bruises or “hickeys” seen all over his body were and what might be the purpose of these treatments?

Although it may seem new, the knowledge that cupping therapy relieves pain has been known for centuries in China and is commonly used as an effective part of their medical treatments.  

What is cupping?

Cupping is used to improve circulation.  The mechanism of effect is not fully known however theories base results on activating the body’s natural mechanisms.  The rush of circulation mimics an injury response and the tissue mobilizes a response to get “healed, renewed”.

In medicine we typically use silicone or glass cups.  They create a vacuum (negative pressure) which draws the circulation to the surface. When the cups are removed the circulation flushes creating the therapeutic effect.

Who benefits from cupping?

Cupping is recommended for many types of musculoskeletal conditions or injuries as it stimulates the fascia (coating on the muscle), increases blood flow and affects myofascial trigger points.  It is a great compliment to manual therapies, such as massage, as it enhances the effects of physical manipulation of the soft tissue.

What can you expect after a cupping treatment?

 In addition to feeling relief of tension and improvement in your pain you will also notice a change in the skin where the treatment was applied.  These changes mimic an injury and the tissue can look irritated, however this is what the treatment is supposed to do.  You will typically notice the following changes that will last a few days to a little longer than a week:

  • Redness in the tissue.  This results from extra circulation in the area/bringing blood to the surface.
  • Round bruises may appear.  These may occur in areas when cupping was done for longer than a few min.  It results from collapsed superficial blood vessels in the skin.  They will resolve on their own, typically in less than a week.
  • Increased sensitivity in the area where the tissues were treated.  You may experience more sensitivity to touch or feel a bit bruised when you lie on the area.  This increased sensitivity typically lasts for a few hours post treatment.
  • Mild irritation or itching during the treatment.  This results from the effect on the circulation and nerves.  It may last for a few hours post-treatment.

When not to use cupping:

Cupping is a safe modality when used by a trained healthcare professional.  However there are sometimes when it should not be used.  Your professional will screen you for these conditions prior to applying the treatment.  Always let the practitioner know if you

  • Bruise easily
  • Take blood thinners
  • Have sensitive or thin skin
  • Are allergic to plastic or silicone (the cups are typically comprised of these materials)
  • Have an open sore
  • Have a bruise or mark from an unknown cause
  • Have a skin disease/condition i.e. psoriasis, eczema

The research on cupping

In health care one of the most important types of studies are systematic reviews.  This is where many articles are reviewed for quality and the researchers evaluate and conclude on the overall strength of the evidence.  These types of reviews help to ensure our practices are based on the best evidence available. 
Research supports cupping is particularly effective in managing:

  • neck pain
  • low back pain
  • shingles-related nerve pain

If you would like to try this technique and are having back pain, neck pain or muscle tightness, please contact the Orthopaedic Therapy Clinic at 416-925-4687 or email at

This service pro­vides gen­eral infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sion about therapy, health and related sub­jects. It is not meant to replace advice and/or treatment from your health care professional.