Chinese Cupping Therapy: an ancient art, now Olympic Treatment


The ancient art of the Chinese cupping therapy became very high profile during the 2016 Olympics as photographs emerged of American swimmer Michael Phelps covered in strange purple ring marks on his back. Apparently, some thought he had been in a bar fight or some insect had attacked him. Others thought he had engaged in some strange ritual, which I suppose in a way he had…


As a practitioner of this healing technique, I place specialised cups on the skin and then use an air pump to create suction between the cup and the skin. This pulls the skin slightly up and away from the underlying muscles. Physiologically, cupping is thought to draw blood to the affected area, reducing soreness and speeding healing of overworked muscles.

In Chinese Medicine terms it promotes the circulation of Blood and Qi; the darker the circles are the poorer the circulation is in that area of the body.

Athletes who use it swear by it, saying it keeps them injury free and speeds their recovery. The US gymnast Alex Naddour is quoted in “USA Today” as saying that

“cupping is better than any money I’ve spent on anything else”.


CHINESE CUPPING THERAPY fire cupping; dry cupping

There are various different types of cupping.  Historically cups made of bamboo were used, but these days most cups are made of glass or plastic.


  • Suction Cupping: The practitioner puts a plastic cup on your skin and then applies a pump to the rubber entrance at the top of the cup, which pulls out the air.  The loss of air creates a suction by which the cup attaches to your skin.
  • Fire Cupping: These are usually made of glass.  The practitioner puts a flame into the cup which pulls out the oxygen.  The cup is then swiftly applied to your skin.
  • Gliding Cupping: The practitioner will put oil on your skin and then lightly apply a suction cup.  The practitioner then gently moves the cup up and down the body, following the channel lines.  This is especially useful if there is a channel blockage and is often used for back pain or in cases of sciatica and muscle tension.
  • Flash Cupping: The practitioner will put oil on your body.  Then, using fire cupping, she will apply and remove the cup in quick succession moving up and down the channels. This technique is effective for improving circulation and blood flow and may be used in cases of acute onset of back pain.


The practitioner pierces the skin first and then places a cup over the area.  This draws blood into the cup.  It can be very useful for painful joints and muscles where, usually following an injury, the blood has stagnated.

Chinese Cupping Therapy

Cupping on a patient


If you have back or joint pain, especially pain that wakes you at night or is painful when you are resting, cupping may be a very good treatment for you. In Chinese Medicine, the pain is worse after resting because there is a block in the flow of Blood and Qi which movement and exercise help to clear. The cups help to pull the blockage to the surface helping to relieve the tension.

I first had cupping for a problem when I had a pain in my shoulder that was waking me up at night. The first time I had cups applied my shoulder immediately felt lighter. I needed several treatments and not just cupping, but I always felt the benefit of it and it was an important part of my treatment.

Cupping can also be useful for coughs and colds, helping to stimulate the immune system to focus on the lungs and upper respiratory tract. Getting cupping early in a cold or flu may cause you to spike a fever for 24 hours. This is a sign that the immune system is quite active.

Cupping also will help break up phlegm in your lungs, which will allow you to cough it out. This is especially useful if you feel any congestion in your chest.


Can cupping help with cellulite?

When suction is applied to the skin, the reverse pressure causes the cellulite to break up. Blood circulation is stimulated, and the fat and toxins that are released are moved to the lymph drainage network.  Cupping can also ease the cords connecting the skin and muscle.  However, to be really effective you would need to have 3 or 4 treatments a week.  Probably the best solution is to have cupping when you see your practitioner but in the meantime do lots of body brushing.

Can cupping help with back pain?

I often use cupping when dealing with back pain.  If there is deep stagnation I will leave the cups in one place for up to 10 minutes.  If the stagnation is mild, I may use gliding cupping up and down the channel to release.  Instead, if there is a general weakness I may use flash cupping to improve the circulation.

Will I get cupping marks?

It depends upon the type of cupping used.  If there is a lot of stagnation yes, you are likely to get some round red or purple marks left on your body.  However, they do not hurt and will usually disappear within 3 days.  With gliding or flash cupping any marks will generally fade very quickly.

Is the Chinese cupping therapy painful?

No, it isn’t.  If you have deep stagnation in one of your muscles or joints you will feel the suction of the cups very strongly but this can actually feel quite relieving.

Can cupping help with fibromyalgia?

Researchers haven’t tested the effectiveness of cupping specifically for fibromyalgia pain relief, but many people living with the disease report benefits. However, some suggest it may simply be a placebo effect.  I would use acupuncture when treating a fibromyalgia patient with some cupping if I thought it might be helpful.

How proven a technique is the Chinese cupping therapy for sports recovery?

Very little studies on cupping for sports recovery exist yet.  Also, most practitioners would probably use cupping as part of an overall treatment.  However, many top athletes swear by it so certainly anecdotally there is a view that it is helpful.


Not enough medical studies regarding cupping have been carried out yet. Also, these need further information to give a scientific confirmation of its effectiveness.

However, one study of 61 people with chronic neck pain compared cupping to a technique called progressive muscle relaxation, or P.M.R., during which a patient deliberately tenses his muscles and then focuses on relaxing them. Half the patients used cupping while the other half used P.M.R. Both patient groups reported similar reductions in pain after 12 weeks of treatment. Notably, the patients who had used cupping scored higher on measurements of well-being and felt less pain when the pressure was applied to the area. Even so, more study is needed to determine the potential benefits of cupping.

Another study of 40 patients who suffered from knee osteoarthritis (OA) found that people who underwent cupping reported less pain after four months compared to arthritis sufferers in a control group who were not treated.

Special Offer: If you would like to try cupping for a musculoskeletal problem I am offering a one-off cupping only treatment of £30 for 30 minutes. Please call me on 07733274745 to discuss and arrange an appointment.

Please note there are contraindications for cupping: skin diseases, haemophilia, leukaemia, cardiac or renal failure, broken bones and dislocations. If in doubt check with your practitioner.

Preparing for an Acupuncture Treatment

If you have not had acupuncture before, here you can learn the basics for preparing for the first acupuncture treatment.

To find out what to expect at an acupuncture treatment please read this blog

About Jackie Graham Acupuncture

I am a licensed acupuncturist working in Ealing W5 and W13.  I am passionate about helping people towards good health.  Visit her website at .  To discuss your condition and to book an appointment call her on 07733 274745

Chinese Cupping Therapy
Service Type
Chinese Cupping Therapy
Provider Name
Jackie Graham Acupuncture,
12 Broomfield Road, ,Ealing,London-W13 9AP,
Telephone No.07733 274745
Chinese Cupping Therapy: dry (suction, flash, gliding, fire cupping) and wet cupping keeps athlete injury free and speeds their recovery. Useful for sports recovery, back pain, painful joints and muscles & musculoskeletal problems.

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