What on Earth is Cupping?

by: Crystal Bondurant-Salisbury, LPTA 

Some of my favorite tools in my “toolbox” as a clinician are cups. They can be plastic, silicone, or glass cups that use negative pressure or vacuum pressure to provide therapeutic benefit. Their versatility allows me to treat conditions ranging from simple to complex, from more recent injuries to chronic conditions. Although they aren’t for everyone they can really improve function and reduce pain. They’ve become pretty popular nationwide, starting a few years back when a certain swimmer took the podium with a few strange, dark circles scattered across his back. If you missed that, it was Micheal Phelps taking the gold in the Olympics in 2016. Cupping isn’t a new thing, though it may be newer to us here in the west.

So, What is Cupping?

Cupping has been around for a long time and all over the world. Originally seen as a way to remove unwanted sickness, pains, disease, or even evil spirits from the body, it was an important part of historical medicine. Ancient medical texts from Egypt describe using cups to treat vertigo, pain, and other issues. Hippocrates, known as the “Father of Medicine”, used cupping in ancient Greece to heal the body of musculoskeletal pain and illness. Cupping in-general is known as an eastern medicine and in China references to cupping were found in the Bo Shu, an ancient book found in a tomb of the Han Dynasty. But, it’s not just a medicine from far away. Cupping can be found a lot closer to home.1 From Europe to throughout the Americas medical practitioners have been carrying around cup sets as part of a standard inventory.

Why Choose Cups?

Practicing physical therapists, athletic trainers,2 massage therapists, and others all use cups today to treat their patients and clients. Modern practitioners use cups in a variety of ways including reducing restrictions like scars,3 improving symptoms of chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, as well as addressing swelling after surgeries.4 Many studies have been done over the last 50 years on the uses and efficacy of cupping and they demonstrate a variety of benefits. A systematic literature review by Cao, et al. showed benefits for pain conditions and herpes zoster (shingles). Other systematic reviews also supported the treatment of pain conditions with the use of cupping and including one review focusing on both amateur and professional athletes. The athletes featured in the studies reported improved perception of pain and disability and increased range of motion in comparison to untreated control groups.  In a study on the effects of cupping for chronic neck pain,5 patients reported benefits up to 2 years later.

Cupping can be used as a stand-alone treatment for some professions like massage therapy, but in physical therapy, we integrate it into a personalized treatment plan. In “An Updated Review of The Efficacy of Cupping Therapy”6 from 2012, cupping was found to be better paired with other treatments like traction than the other treatments alone.

Physical therapists and physical therapist assistants using research-supported techniques can provide a diverse and unique treatment with the use of cupping techniques.



  1. Fundamentals of Modern Cupping Therapy. In Proceedings of Modern Cupping Therapy Educational Company Course. Virginia Beach, Va., 2019
  2. Bridgett, Rhianna, et al. “Effects of Cupping Therapy in Amateur and Professional Athletes: Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., Publishers, 1 Mar. 2018, www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2017.0191.
  3. MCT for Pathology and Scar Tissue. In Proceedings of Modern Cupping Therapy Educational Company Course. Virginia Beach, Va., 2019
  4. Therapeutic Cupping for Lymph Drainage. In Proceedings of Modern Cupping Therapy Educational Company Course. Virginia Beach, Va., 2019
  5. Leem, Jungtae. “Long-term effect of cupping for chronic neck pain.” Integrative medicine research vol. 3,4 (2014): 217-219. doi:10.1016/j.imr.2014.10.001
  6. Cao, Huijuan, et al. An Updated Review of the Efficacy of Cupping Therapy. 28 Feb. 2012, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0031793.