Teenage boy with red, circular, cupping marks on his back

Cupping Therapy: Does it Improve Athletic Abilities?

Cupping is an ancient form of medicine that lost popularity in the western medical world towards the late 20th century. Lately, this method of therapy has regained popularity and is being seen in more physical therapy clinics around the United States. As most noted during the 2016 Summer Olympics, Michael Phelps and other Olympians used cupping as a way to recover more quickly and decrease their post exercise soreness and pain.

Although cupping is seen more often in the athletic world, physical therapists are using it more and more in the general population to assist with improving a patient’s daily function and pain.

This form of alternative medicine involves a practitioner putting special cups on the skin for a few minutes to create suction for a therapeutic effect. The technique leaves behind these painless circular reddish/purple marks which are a result of blood being pulled up closer to the surface of the skin.

There are two popular types of cupping, dry cupping and wet cupping. In both of these techniques one or multiple cups may be used depending on the practitioner’s preference.

When performing wet cupping, tiny cuts are placed to a post-cupped region, and then re-cupped again. The drawing of blood is thought to improve circulation and remove toxins from the cupped area.

During dry cupping, cups are placed on the skin for 5-20 minutes and may be left in place or moved on top of the skin to decrease tissue tension and improve mobility. In physical therapy clinics, dry cupping is increasing in popularity and the suction is typically created by hand-held pumps unlike the traditional method of using fire. It is believed that the main benefits are muscle relaxation, improved blood circulation, and decreased pain to the region being cupped.

While cupping seems like a quick fix, the overall evidence behind its short-term benefits is currently unclear. However, new research in the western medical world shows cupping has positive benefits, specifically in decreasing chronic pain. Used in conjunction with other therapeutic treatments and not as a sole solution, cupping can be a great tool for therapists to use during their daily treatments to improve a patient’s mobility and musculoskeletal pain.

For more information about Nationwide Children’s Sports and Orthopedic Physical Therapy clinics, click here.


John Caballero, PT, DPT, CSCS
John was born and raised in Miami, Florida. He received his bachelor's degree while competing as a four year Division-I baseball pitcher at Florida International University (FIU). He completed his Doctorate of Physical Therapy at the University of Miami, Florida. After physical therapy school, he had the opportunity to begin his career at Nationwide Children’s Hospital as one of the Sports and Orthopedic Physical Therapy Orthopedic Residents, where he treated and expanded his knowledge on the pediatric to adult orthopedic population. Through his training and education, he has extensive knowledge in treating upper extremity injuries, specifically within the overhead athletic population, and uses this in conjunction with his athletic background to treat patients of all ages. In his spare time he enjoys spending time with family, playing recreational sports, and traveling.

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