Ever seen those dark-purple, circular marks on the backs of Olympic athletes, especially the Chinese swim team? The marks are reminiscent of signs of a giant-squid attack. Those circles are the signs of metabolic waste, such as lactic acid, cellular debris and environmental and recreational toxins, being pulled to the surface of the skin via cupping therapy. Some of the toxins will come out through skin pores. The rest are processed by the lymphatic system — the system in the body designed to bring such debris to the kidneys for removal via urine.

Despite the marks, cupping therapy is a rather relaxing, massage-like therapy. Cupping treatment involves creating a vacuum in the cup that gently sucks the top layer of skin and muscle up into the cup. The vacuum is created either with flame (in the case of glass cups), or with a pump that sucks air out with each pump, or by manually pushing air out of modern silicone cups. The vacuum is what draws metabolic waste out of the tissue and opens up space for the capillary beds to expand, and thus increase blood flow. Both of these aid in post-workout recovery and directly improve athletic performance.

The marks only appear when waste products are present in the tissues under the cup. Generally, when you first get cupping treatment, you may have marks for one to seven days. With each subsequent cupping treatment, the marks will be less dark, until you no longer have them.

Why do we need such a seemingly bizarre treatment? Well, all those pesky waste products mentioned above tend to get stuck in our muscle and adipose (or fat) tissue, depending on our lifestyle and activity levels, and contribute to pain and inflammation. In the case of athletics, Olympic athletes and American baseball teams like the New York Mets are embracing cupping for its performance-enhancing effects. DeMarcus Ware of the NFL’s Denver Broncos also swears by cupping therapy.

The earliest documented cupping therapy is from a Taoist herbalist, circa the third to fourth centuries A.D. Many cultures across the globe have evidence of cupping treatments performed using hollow animal horns, bones and shells. There are specific treatments in Russia that are used to keep the immune system strong and the body clean by following a quick-moving cupping protocol across the patient’s entire back. Another treatment, from Greece, focuses specifically on supporting lung function when you have a cough, bronchitis or pneumonia. Traditional Chinese cupping incorporates a wide range of lung treatments and treatment to remove “painful obstruction” from the body. This is a fancy way of saying these treatments are employed as a pain-management treatment.

In modern times, the advent of different-sized glasses, plastic pump-cups and silicone cups allow for different types of cupping treatments. All of these modern applications are excellent for athletes.

In moving-cup therapy, salve is first administered to large muscle groups, such as the muscles of the back, hamstrings, calves or iliotibial band. The cup is applied and then gently lifted and slowly moved across the muscle fibers. Moving cupping often feels like a massage, and incorporates cross-muscle-fiber movements paired with tracing the natural fiber trajectory of the muscles. This combination of movements breaks up any adhesions or micro-scars that have formed in the fascia that encases the muscle bodies themselves. 

If the fascia has multiple adhesions, it means the muscles have a smaller space to stretch out in. You can stretch to your heart’s content, but until the house of your muscles is expanded, your muscles can only stretch so far. The combination of increased blood flow, waste removal and adhesion repair retrains your muscle from being chronically tight to remembering how to be soft, supple, stretchy and flexible. This also means you experience less pain.

There is a time and a place for moving cups. But some situations may benefit more from what is called stationary cupping, which leaves the cups in place for 10 to 20 minutes. This is an excellent treatment when muscles or fascia have been injured or are too tight initially to benefit from moving cupping.

Stationary cupping with modern silicone cups can also help treat joint pain. Glass and plastic cups are too rigid, or the wrong shape, to safely place over joints. Silicone cups can be molded to the shape of a muscle or to fit safely over a joint, such as the shoulder. 

Just like muscles, joints can trap inflammatory mediators and waste products from extensive exercise. In my practice, I have seen great benefit to swimmers, rock climbers, baseball players and yogis when I cup their shoulders. Runners and cyclists often benefit from cupping different aspects of their hips and knees. Silicone cups can even conform to the bottom of the foot and provide an excellent treatment for plantar fasciitis.

It is important to see a health-care provider who is trained in cupping therapy. While cupping therapy is a noninvasive and safe treatment, untrained individuals can accidentally injure themselves or others with cupping therapy. 

If you are interested in experiencing cupping to improve your health and performance, all acupuncturists are trained in cupping therapy as a part of their master’s education in Chinese medicine. Some massage therapists are also trained in cupping therapy via the International Cupping Therapy Association. Check out ICTA’s website for a list of certified cupping therapists to make sure you are seeing someone properly trained. I hope you can use this information to play hard and recover well.

Recommended for you