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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Dean

Cupping, Elite Athletes, And You: Guide to Cupping Therapy

“What are all those marks from? Tussle with an octopus?”

cupping therapy, michael phelps, cupping and the olympics, chinese medicine, acupuncture
Michael Phelps at the Summer Olympics with Sha on his Shoulder!

This is a common reaction when someone first sees all those red, circular marks on your skin after a cupping session. The last Summer Olympics we had our most elite athletes wearing these like a badge of honor. But what do they know, that we don’t about this modality that promises a speedy recovery from injury so that elite athletes can stay at the top of their game? Better yet, how can we get in on the action!

Is this simply a trend?

In truth, cupping therapy is an ancient method of healing the body. Our ancestors practiced this as a form of medicine, all around the globe.

Cupping is not a trend, but a tradition!

Chinese Medicine is comprised of numerous modalities. Though acupuncture is the most well-known, cupping therapy is one of the most valued. Developed over thousands of years in Asia, this practice made its way to Europe, notably Italy and the Russian Federation.

Cupping has been used for generations to treat an assortment of physical maladies and internal conditions.

What is Cupping Therapy?

Cupping is the application of an airtight device to the skin through suction. The device in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a simple glass cup. Bamboo cups are super traditional and you may see some intrepid practitioners using this, or even displayed in museums. These days, many clinicians opt for plastic cups as they are less expensive, less breakable, and have a hand-pump to create the suction.

Purists still use a method called Fire Cupping. Here a flame is inserted into the cup to force all air out, this takes just a moment, then the flame is removed and the cup is applied to the skin to create suction.

Fire Cupping is to only be used by a trained and experienced clinician. In that regard, you will rarely see a Chiropractor or Physical Therapist use this method. A licensed acupuncturist undergoes nearly 3,000 hours of classroom and clinical training to perform Fire Cupping, and all the modalities of TCM.

Frankly, cupping is awesome. Literally, every BODY can benefit from cupping therapy performed regularly.

As a form of bodywork, manual therapy, and physical medicine, cupping is superior to most. Remember those marks you see leftover from a session, we call that Sha. Translating to “shark skin” or “sand skin,” Sha is called petechiae by Western medicine. This is a therapeutic form of bruising.

The degree of color change – pink, orange, red, blue, brown – and the skin texture changes – smooth, bumpy, raised – indicates the severity of a condition.

When there is injury, trauma, blockage, or weakness in an area, blood begins to stagnate. Think of a stagnant pond. The water is not moving, so things fester and decay. Well, your blood likes to move. When it sits for too long, it congeals and hardens. Nutrients are no longer coming in and toxins build up. We call it dead blood, and it is an ancient concept of disease.

The color and texture changes are used diagnostically. The more stagnant the blood and energy, the greater the discolorations and superficial skin changes.

The suction is part of the magic!

Cupping literally draws the toxins and dead blood to the surface of the body where it is eventually expelled. The greater the markings left, the greater the need for just such a treatment!

Cupping is like breathing fresh air in to your body

The TCM concept is called Releasing the Exterior. This is a remarkably effective treatment principle we use to treat colds, viral infections, physical pain, internal conditions, and much more. Imagine this. You are cooking food at the stovetop. You feel the heat rise and maybe even some steam forms. What do you do? Turn on the vent, open the doors and windows. You invite that heat, that steam, to leave your house.

That is what cupping does, its vents your house (body). You may have a pathogen creating symptoms, invite them to leave. You may be experiencing acute or chronic pain, invite it out of your house.

Benefits of Cupping Therapy

Moves Qi & Blood, Removes Stasis

Promotes circulation of blood flow and energy flow to move out toxins and stagnant substances, while simultaneously nourishing tissues and the interstices

Stops or Alleviates Pain

Frees muscular adhesions (trigger points), relaxes muscle tissues and tendons, which turns off or mutes efferent nervous impulses that characterize pain signals to the central nervous system

Warms the Body and Dispels Cold

The application of heat is very soothing and comforting to the mind (nerves) and body. Cold can get lodged in the body, travel deeply and cause all sorts of pathologies. Cupping delivers heat therapy on a novel and effective manner.

Diminishes Inflammation and Swelling

One protective measure the body embraces is flooding an injured or sick area with blood and other body substances. Acutely, this is helpful to stabilize a problematic region. Chronically, this inflammatory response is detrimental. Cupping is an anti-inflammatory treatment modality that liberates the flood of byproducts and increases the healing response.

Treats Musculoskeletal Disorders

As an asian bodywork therapy, cupping attends to the aches and pains from daily activity to elite athletic endeavors, and also the injury process that occurs from damaging tissue. Frozen Shoulder, Back Pain, Arthritis? Cupping helps that and more. Again, cupping promotes the healing response of the body while alleviating common pain symptoms.

Treats Internal Disorders

Cupping therapy is especially good for Digestive, Respiratory, and Gynecological pathologies. Further, when combined with Acupuncture Medical Theory cupping is a comprehensive treatment in and of itself.


By pulling up deep stagnations, cupping mechanically draws toxins to the surface where they are washed away by the influx of fresh blood. Beyond this, cupping can be used to purge poisons from venomous bites from animals and insects.

As a practitioner, I have one huge pet-peeve about cupping therapy.

I see folks walking around outside, bearing their skin, showing off their cupping marks.

Going back to the house analogy I gave earlier … You just opened your windows and the pathogen or pain has not left. Hooray! But you forgot to draw the curtains, so a new pathogen or uninvited guest enters. Whoops!

What to avoid after a cupping session?

Avoid exposing your skin to the wind, direct sunlight, and immersion in water for at least a few hours afterwards. That means, cover your marks with a scarf, a shirt, something. Also, don’t go jumping into a cold water plunge or steam room. We pulled stagnant blood from the depths of your body and organs. Drink plenty of water and get some rest! You may feel a bit worn following a session.

You can totally show off to your friends, family, and colleagues. Simply, keep it covered. Also, yes, you can absolutely shower and bath the day of a cupping session. Just give your skin a few hours of “rest.”

Performance Acupuncture of Lakewood Ranch is dedicated to your personal wellness journey. If you are looking to recover faster, perform better, and be pain-free, give us a call now to schedule your next visit. We are your local source for superior healthcare to all our neighbors in Sarasota and Bradenton. Call or email today to set up your next cupping therapy session!

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Dr. Dean is amazing! He has been my go to for everything, lower back pain, acupucture, massage. Treatments are effective and results are immediate! I would highly recommend Dr Dean!

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