Cupping therapy & the Olympics

World famous Olympic gold medalist, Michael Phelps showed up to events at the Rio Olympics with strange round marks on his shoulders and back. They were the result of cupping therapy. Phelps is an avid user of cupping therapy and uses the therapy before all of his swimming meets. Phelps also uses it to help reduce soreness and speed recovery from his grueling training sessions.

Phelps isn’t the only Olympian to enjoy the benefits. Alex Naddour, Natalie Coughlin, Missy Franklin and Pavel Sankovich have also gone public in their use of cupping therapy.

What is cupping therapy?

Cupping therapy is a very old method of physical therapy that was used by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians and some Eastern European countries for many centuries. The therapy is also used by registered acupuncturists and is sometimes used along with acupuncture to treat tight muscles, especially in cases of chronic neck and back pain. It works by lifting the local connective tissue, loosening adhesions and increasing blood flow to areas of the body that have been tight and congested. Many people who receive cupping treatments say that it feels like they have had a deep, relaxing massage.

This ancient therapy is also supported by researchers. A study conducted at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany concluded that cupping decreased pressure pain sensitivity benefiting patient with neck pain. Yet more research concludes that cupping combined with acupuncture leads to better patient outcomes to using only acupuncture in certain clinical cases.

Cupping is performed by producing a partial vacuum in a glass cupping implement before placing it on the skin. The vacuum inside the cup places the local soft tissue under tension, stretching the local connective tissue and loosening tight muscles. The round marks left on the skin are actually haematoma. Whilst they may look spectacular the haematoma are not painful and usually disappear in a matter of days.


Lauche R, Materdey S, Cramer H, Haller H, Stange R, Dobos G, Rampp T. Effectiveness of home-based cupping massage compared to progressive muscle relaxation in patients with chronic neck pain—A randomized controlled trial. PloS one. 2013 Jun 7;8(6):e65378.

Cao H, Li X, Yan X, Wang NS, Bensoussan A, Liu J. Cupping therapy for acute and chronic pain management: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences. 2014 Jul 1;1(1):49-61.

About Ian Murray

Ian is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese Herbal Medicine practitioner at Kenmore Centre for Health. This website contains general information about medical conditions and treatments. The information is not advice, and should not be treated as such.
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