The Debate on Cupping as a Treatment Tool

March 9, 2019

Cupping is a technique for treating muscle pain, soreness and stiffness that has been around for thousands of years; it's mentioned in one of the oldest medical textbooks in the Western world, The Ebers Papyrus, written c. 1550 BC. Cupping has been a very popular form of treatment among swimmers because they are more likely to suffer shoulder injuries, and came more into vogue during the 2016 Olympics because of its use by Olympic athletes such as Michael Phelps. 

The following description in an article on describes this form of treatment in the following manner:

“A small cup, either glass or plastic, will be placed on a certain muscle in an athlete's body. Then, either through suction or heat, a vacuum is created that stretches the muscles or tissue to reduce knots and soreness.”

The issue about the effectiveness of Cupping is still a topic of debate. Many athletes and athletic trainers belief strongly in it. Others feel there's no validity to it.

Justin Gawlik, athletic trainer for the University of Missouri's swim team, is one who endorses Cupping. Gawlik has cupped hundreds of athletes, and he said in the article he has only worked with one athlete who did not feel it was beneficial.

“Cupping is a valuable tool to provide manual therapy with ease and without a reliance on a trainer's hands according to Gawlik,” the article states. “Like other forms of manual therapy, cupping stretches and loosens the muscles allowing an athlete to recover and continue to train at a high level.”

Gawlik believes Cupping is a treatment protocol that can be used throughout the swimming season. He said cupping is “used during the season to dig someone out of the hole and allow them to recover when swimming and weightlifting are most intense.” During the taper phase of the sport, cupping can help the athletes' muscles remain loose and improve blood flow.

An article on the University of St. Augustine Dept. for Health Sciences website, author Rob Stanborough, PT, DPT, MHSc, MTC, CMTPT, FAAOMPT, writes that that treatment through Cupping varies based on the type and size of cups used, and the method of treatment.

He writes: “One type of cup creates a vacuum by being heated up, placed on the skin and slowly cooled down. As the inside of the cup cools, suction is formed and pulls or lifts the skin and fascia up. Another cup type is attached to an electrical vacuum or pump. In either case the cup is placed on the skin, the suction is created and the tissues are lifted. Since heat is not used and cooling does not occur, the suction is eventually released after a period of manipulation. Last but not least, suction can be applied using cups with a simple bulb on the end that can be squeezed to varying degrees determining the level of vacuum. The tissues are manipulated and the vacuum is released.

“Regardless of the cup type, the cup may be left in one place or moved around, but all treatment methods are gentle and very specific.”

Still, Stanborough acknowledges that “How cupping works to manipulate soft tissue, improve blood flow and promote healing is not exactly known.” He writes that one explanation is that “unloading” of the tissue via suction from Cupping results in decompression of the blood vessels resulting in improved blood flow. Another theory is that “pulling on tissue manipulates the collagen, which imparts stresses to fibroblast, and in turn triggers a chain reaction causing the tissues to relax, and perhaps improve blood flow and healing.”

There are many medical professionals who believe that the benefits of Cupping is inconslusive, and most acknowledge that there potential risking associated with the technique. An article on the Cleveland Clinic website lists the following negative side effects that can by caused by Cupping:

• Bruises (this is the most visible effect)


• Burns (caused by hot cups)

• Skin infections

“Researchers stress that conventional treatment should be used first for any condition, and that cupping is intended as a “complementary” or “alternative” treatment. Further study is needed to determine how cupping actually benefits patients,” the article states.

While professionals have different opinions on the effectivenss of Cupping, there seems to be a consensus on one point: It's important that protocol is utilized only by professionals who have gone through proper training.

Here are sources for gaining certification in Cupping:


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