Cupping Therapy: What is it?

Updated: June 13, 2022

If you tuned into the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games, you more than likely saw Gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps with circular purplish bruises all over his body. Many people were fascinated and inquired about the strange markings and their purpose. The marks on Phelps and the other athletes’ bodies were from cupping therapy and were used for part of their preparation and recovery. Now, contrary to some people’s assumptions, cupping therapy is not only beneficial to world-renowned Olympic athletes, but it is accessible and helpful to people of all types and activity levels. Naturally, if you consider cupping therapy and if it is right for you, there may be questions lingering in your mind. What are cupping therapy origins? Does it hurt? Is it a long-term need? We will address these questions and more below. You can use these tools to see if this form of therapy is suitable for you.


Cupping is an ancient technique used by a famous Taoist alchemist and herbalist, Ge Hong. Hong, who lived from A.D. 281 to 341 was the first to report practicing cupping. The practice of cupping has many benefits that we take advantage of today, but the Chinese believe there are additional benefits to cupping. Many Taoists believe that cupping facilitates the flow of “qi” in the body, a Chinese word meaning life force. This flow of qi helps balance yin and yang, or the negative and positive within the body.   

Modern Day  

Cupping therapy has come a long way from its ancient origins and has made its way into Western medical practice. Transitioning from the use of fire for suction to the use of handheld pumps or cups with suction attachments on them has become more commonplace (don’t worry, we don’t use fire for suction). Also, modern-day usage of cupping has seen plastic or glass as the two most common materials for cups instead of the materials used in ancient practices.  

Unlike ancient practices, modern-day cupping is more focused on body restoration in terms of muscle tension, blood circulation, and release of toxins instead of the body’s “qi” or yin and yang. 

Modern-day cupping therapy sessions require the cup to be suctioned onto one area of the body and placed there for an allotted amount of time (typically between 5-10 minutes) to promote blood flow. When more restriction is present within an area, practitioners typically use a “sliding” technique. This technique requires less suction, and the cups are moved over a big muscle group and gently stretches connective tissue and fascia, helping promote blood flow and lymphatic drainage. 

What Happens During Cupping Treatment?

Now that you know where the technique came from and how it has evolved, the next most important question is, “what exactly happens during treatment?” Cupping therapy is a technique that uses cups to create a suction of the skin and promote increased blood circulation to a specific area. The increase in blood flow caused by the suction draws fluid into a specific area and allows the body to treat this area like an injury. The body treating the impacted area like an injury means that muscle tension is relieved, which helps release toxins, and promotes cell repair. This process forms new connective tissue and blood vessels, then the stimulation of the body’s natural healing process begins.

When clients and patients have skin conditions like sunburn, skin ulcers, wounds, and open cuts should be completely healed before a cupping therapy session. Still, as with any medical treatment, a discussion with your doctor and the professional performing the treatment should ensure that the client is fully qualified to receive the treatment. 

What to Expect

One of the most intriguing parts of cupping treatment is the marks that are present after treatment. The circular reddish spots left on the body are typically a result of the blood vessels and connective tissue responding to the change in pressure of that area. Typically, the deepness of the color the marks leave indicates how much stagnant blood was in the area and has now been released (the darker the mark, the more stagnant blood was in that area and can now move because of increased blood flow). Depending on how dark the marks are, the discoloration typically lasts between 5-7 days.  

During the first session, the suction cups will be placed on the treatment area for 5 – 10 minutes. The suction may feel weird or slightly uncomfortable since it is a new sensation to your body, but it should not be painful. Be sure to communicate with the practitioner if you feel pain so they can adjust the amount of suction. The suction amount may also be reduced so the cups can “slide” to create and stimulate more blood flow through the restricted area. 


There are numerous benefits to cupping therapy. Relieving tension and restrictions in the muscle tissue and fascia system is one of the most common uses of this technique. Back pain, neck pain, and knee pain are ailments that can be addressed and improved with cupping therapy as well. Other health issues that can be possibly addressed with cupping therapy are gastrointestinal disorders, reduction of anxiety, and the encouragement of tissues to release toxins.  



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