Though Cupping Therapy has just recently gained popularity in the world of exercise and sports performance, the recovery technique is far from a new practice. The Academy of Classical Oriental Sciences estimates that cupping has been used in China for thousands of years. The Chinese would use cattle horns and bamboo pieces combined with boiling water or fire to create the suctioning effect.
So why is it just now becoming a hot discussion topic in the contemporary health and fitness world?
Well for starters, unlike the ancient Chinese techniques, it is far less intimidating. A quick Amazon search will produce professional looking cups and for a very reasonable price.
Second, Michael Phelps brought it to the world’s largest stage at the 2016 Rio Olympics when he competed with the circular cupping bruises on his shoulders and back
So does it actually work?
With any new training technique, tool or application there is always those who swear by it and those who think it’s nonsense. To avoid a heated debate, we will let the research speak for itself.
Unfortunately the research is fairly limited on modern cupping techniques, but there are some small amounts of good information out there.
In a 2014 pilot study conducted by Markowski et al, the effects of cupping techniques on individuals with subacute or chronic lower back pain found that cupping may allow patients to advance to functional exercises in a “timely manner.” This was attributed to cupping’s ability to promptly reduce pain and muscle tightness and increase in joint range of motion.
Though the sample population was individuals with low-back pain, as athletes and lifters we can see how this technique could be beneficial to us. One of the main reasons that stretching and self-myofascial release exercises are recommended post-activity is to increase/restore range of motion and decrease muscle tightness. Although no study has specifically studied the effects of cupping on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) in athletes, this study provides at least some indication that it may be beneficial.
Is it safe?
Yaun et al conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness and safety of traditional Chinese medicine (acupuncture, acupressure, cupping) on individuals suffering from chronic neck pain and chronic low-back pain. They found that the traditional Chinese methods “could be efficacious in treating the pain and disability associated with CNP or CLBP in the immediate term” and that all three modalities are relatively safe.
Even though the research is quite limited on the effects of cupping on athletes and lifters we are seeing more folks start to use them for recovery. It is important to understand, as an athlete or weightlifter, that very few things are all good or all bad. Your safety is most important. If you are going to use cupping therapy techniques, make sure that you are with a professional who is experienced in using them. Although one study found that the technique is “relatively safe” it may not be safe for everyone, all the time. That gives rise to a good point about the proper dosage for cupping. How long and how often should one use cupping therapy? These are both unknowns.
Another question one should ask their self before testing any training or recovery techniques is: “is there a better or safer method?”
In the case of cupping, the answer is yes. Li et al studied the rehabilitation effect of cupping (as well as other techniques) and exercise on patients with a lumbar muscle strain. No surprise, they found that the rehabilitation effect of exercise was more significant when compared to cupping and the other techniques tested. Time and time again voluntary muscle contraction (exercise) has shown to be the most effective recovery technique available.
While exercise is undoubtedly the best recovery technique in most situations, it too has its limitations. If a patient cannot move or exercise secondary to pain then cupping, dry needling, and other techniques likely become more effective. Again, the overall effectiveness and safety of some of these alternative techniques is still unknown and in most situations using cupping as a recovery technique should be a last resort.