Whether your legs are perpetually tired from marathon training or you’ve strained your back during that new at-home TikTok workout, muscle pain is unpleasant and can be hard to treat. If your run-of-the-mill ice packs, heat pads, or over-the-counter painkillers aren’t doing the trick, there may be another option out there for you: cupping. Perhaps you recognize it from Michael Phelps’s infamous circular splotches at the 2016 Olympics, or maybe you’ve caught wind as the treatment becomes increasingly popular in the U.S. Read on to learn what sports medicine doctors have to say about cupping for muscle pain and recovery.
Meet the Expert
- Monica Rho, MD, is a Chicago-based associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
- Christopher Hicks, MD, clinical associate of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine at the University of Chicago, is a board-certified orthopaedist who specializes in non-operative sports medicine.
- Brendon Ross, DO, MS, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine at the University of Chicago, is a sports medicine orthopaedist and researcher.
What Is Cupping?
Much like it sounds, cupping is a treatment that increases blood flow to your muscles by suctioning special cups to your skin. “The idea behind cupping is to promote blood flow for injury or muscle recovery,” says Ross. “It can help bring in healthy nutrients like oxygen or immune cells into the area to promote natural healing. This also helps wash out anything in the area that might be noxious, like inflammatory molecules. It brings in good stuff and eliminates bad stuff.”
Cups come in all shapes and sizes and can be made of glass, silicone, bamboo, and more. The treatment descends from ancient forms of Eastern medicine, says Rho, and today is commonly used to stimulate muscle recovery.
It’s tricky to prove the benefits of cupping scientifically, says Hicks, because research studies often rely on observing how patients feel without knowing if they received real treatment or a placebo. There’s just no way to fake cupping. Nonetheless, there’s research to suggest that cupping can reduce pain, relax muscles and remove toxins from the affected area. And the patients speak for themselves, says Hicks, with many reporting that cupping reduces their pain and helps their muscles feel better.
Here are some of the ways you can benefit from cupping, according to these doctors:
- Reduces muscle pain and tightness
- Flushes toxins from the affected area
- Relieves discomfort from chronic pain conditions
- Promotes blood flow to stimulate the body’s natural healing process
How to Prepare For a Cupping Treatment
You don’t need to do much to prepare for a cupping session, says Hicks, though staying well-hydrated never hurts. Some practitioners may also recommend you fast for a few hours before your appointment so that your body can focus on directing more blood flow to the cupping area instead of digestion.
If you have any wounds or infections in the areas where you’re experiencing muscle pain, it’s best to hold off on cupping until those have healed, says Ross. Ross and Rho also recommend consulting with your doctor beforehand if you have an ongoing medical condition or take a blood-thinning medicine to ensure cupping is safe for you.
What to Expect at a Cupping Treatment
There are two types of cupping: wet and dry. Wet cupping is when you pin-prick the skin with a needle before or after applying the cups to draw out small, controlled amounts of blood. Dry cupping doesn’t involve piercing the skin.
At the beginning of your session, you’ll talk with your practitioner about your symptoms, lifestyle, and treatment goals. For the treatment itself, you’ll lie face down or up in a massage bed based on the target muscles. Your practitioner will put anywhere from one to ten or more cups on your bare skin in the affected area, depending on your condition. They’ll create suction by either heating the cup over a flame before placing it on your skin or using a special pump to vacuum air out of the cup. Your skin might feel tight from the suction.
The cups will stay on the skin for anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour or more, depending on the person. How many sessions and how often they happen will also differ based on your needs.
You might feel fatigued for a day or so afterward as your body processes the toxins expelled during treatment. Rest and stay hydrated to help your body flush out that waste.
Cupping vs. Acupuncture
Though cupping and acupuncture are two distinct treatments, they share similarities and are sometimes even used in conjunction to treat pain, says Hicks. Like cupping, acupuncture originates from ancient Eastern medicine. It involves placing thin needles in the skin to balance your body’s energy flows, helping relieve pain and other conditions. Cupping, on the other hand, incorporates suction to promote healing blood flow to the area. Your practitioner might put acupuncture needles under or around your cups to combine the treatments into one if your condition might benefit from the double whammy.
At-Home vs. In-office Cupping
While in-office cupping is the best and safest way to restore muscle health and find and treat the source of your pain, at-home cupping is also an option to keep aches at bay. Self-cupping kits are often plastic or silicone cups that you place on the skin and squeeze to create suction.
However, Rho cautions, if you haven't been trained in cupping, you probably shouldn't do it on yourself. Ross recommends your practitioner teach you how to do it before giving it a try so that you know exactly where, how long, and how many cups you need.
Discoloration at the cupping site is a common side effect, and can last for a week or more before fading on its own, says Rho. “A little post-treatment flare or discomfort can be common for a day or two afterward because you're causing some local bruising to create healthy inflammation in the tissue,” says Ross.
If you do wet cupping or combine your treatment with acupuncture, there’s a slight chance of irritation or infection where the needles punctured your skin, says Hicks. If cups aren’t carefully heated over flames, you also run the risk of burns.
Like many rehabilitative treatments, the cost of cupping depends on where you get it and your insurance coverage. That’s why we recommend checking in with your practitioner about pricing before starting treatment.
If you’re looking for a medicine-free and possibly even relaxing way of easing pain and restoring your muscles’ strength and function, give this fan-favorite treatment a try. “All the nutrients and blood flow getting into the muscle area from cupping helps the body’s natural healing for aches and pains, tightness and soreness in the muscles,” says Hicks.
Al-Bedah AMN, Elsubai IS, Qureshi NA, et al. The Medical Perspective of Cupping Therapy: Effects and Mechanisms of Action. J Tradit Complement Med. 2018;9(2):90-97. doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2018.03.003