Cupping is Not Just for Athletes

Examples of glass cups and silicon cups.

Those perfectly rounded purplish circles on Michael Phelps’ shoulders and back at the Olympics were not the result of some cultish ritual. Nor were they bruises. Those circles were the result of cupping, a legitimate health care technique used by healing practitioners for thousands of years.

When Gwyneth Paltrow showed up with light red circles on her back at a New York film festival in 2012, cupping stories were the buzz on CNN and CBS news. She and Phelps are not the only celebrities to receive cupping treatments. Jennifer Anniston, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian, Serena Williams and US gymnast Alex Naddour all have experimented with the method.

Five healers on Capitol Hill are trained to use cups with their clients to promote healing. “Cupping is a powerful adjunct to acupuncture treatment,” said Marjorie Shovlin, acupuncturist. “I use it most often to help shorten colds, and also to bring blood to sore muscles, especially on the back. Cupping can sometimes be helpful for fertility treatment as well.”

Mary Rieger, acupuncturist, has been using cupping in her practice with clients as needed for more than 20 years. “I use it for stress relief. It’s good for releasing toxins. I also can use cupping to relieve big muscle pain that may be in the back or thighs. It can also be effective on the neck and shoulders. You can cup just about anywhere on the body although never on the spine or tender areas.” 

What is Cupping?

Cupping is a procedure used in traditional Chinese medicine that involves placing rounded cups upside down on a part of the body. They are held on the skin by suction which can stimulate circulation, promote the flow of energy (chi), decrease inflammation, increase local blood circulation and correct imbalances.

Suction can be created by heating the base of the glass cup or by using a pump inserted at the top of the cup.  Cupping is also thought to open pores and promote detoxification. It is inexpensive, non-invasive and low-risk.

“Cupping is not a fad,” said Kelly. “Every culture has incorporated some form of cupping.”

It developed over time from its original use of animal horns to treat boils and suck toxins out of a body from snake bites and skin lesions. Horns evolved into bamboo cups. Now glass and silicone cups are used.

The origin of cupping is uncertain according to Morgan Massage in Watertown, MA. Early pictorial records date back to the ancient Egyptians around 1500 BC. Translations of hieroglyphics in the oldest medical textbook “Elbers Papyrus” detail use of cupping for treatment of pain, fever, vertigo, menstrual imbalances, weakened appetite and helping to speed the healing process.

Cupping has been found to be able to reduce musculoskeletal pain according to a 2016 research paper co-authored by Leonid Kalichman, a senior lecturer from Ben-Gurion University in Israel that reviewed cupping research in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies.

What’s With Those Red Marks?

The purplish red circles are not bruises. They are the result of suction, not impact, explained Kelly Bower, massage therapist. “If you’ve ever had a hickie, it’s a similar feel and mark.” Karen Culpepper, herbalist and massage therapist explains further. “There doesn’t have to be marks. However, the coloring can give us information about what is going on in that area. Red indicates stagnation, a bluish cast indicates cold, and a whitish color indicates lack of circulation.” When Karen was in school learning cupping she was practicing on another student. When she placed the cups on the student’s back all the circles were red except those above the lungs. They were dark purplish, almost black. When the instructor asked the student if she smoked the student said yes.

 “The longer you leave on the cups the longer the mark will stay,” she said. Kelly added, “I rarely mark my clients because I don’t usually leave the cups on longer than two minutes. The marks usually dissipate by the end of the session.”

Another technique that can be used with cups is gliding. “I slide the over the body. It’s more like a deep tissue massage.” added Frances Lutz, acupuncturist.  

What’s Cupping Good For?

All types of cupping is good for circulation said Frances. She said she takes a holistic, integrative approach to helping her clients heal. “I use whatever I need to help a client feel better. “I used fire cupping on an acupuncture client to help with his asthma. I’ve also used cupping for his sciatica. It draws out stagnant blood.” Frances smiled. “It may sound medieval, but there’s science to it. It’s just the leaches of modern day.” Frances also said cupping is good for fibromyalgia, arthritis, frozen shoulder and bursitis. “It can help lessen acute pain.”

Susan Press, who has been getting massages from Kelly for 15 years, has cupping done for several reasons. “I do it to deal with lymphedema and when the fascia in my back and legs gets sticky. Kelly has also used it to help reduce bruising from desks and other objects jumping out at me.” She said it feels different depending on what type of cupping Kelly does. “Sometimes it is a prickly sensation. Other times it’s a pulling or sucking sensation. It generally leaves a depression or red ring but it is gone by the next day.” She said her legs or back always feel better and the effect lasts for at least a week of more depending on the weather. (Susan tends to swell more in the summer.)  “I was a real sceptic on cupping. It surprised me that it really works.”

As a massage therapist Kelly looks on cupping as a tool available to use in any session. “For people who run, it can help with tightness in their legs. It can also help with carpel tunnel syndrome.”

Cupping is not for everyone. Contraindications include pregnancy, frailty, thin skin, varicose veins, sun burn, radiated skin and some blood disorders. It is important for you and your practitioner to discuss what is best for your body.


To find the latest studies on cupping go to:

Capitol Hill Healers that do cupping:

  • Kelly Bowers, massage therapist and Karen Culpepper, herbalist and massage therapist, Freed Bodyworks 202-321-9715
  • Frances Lutz, acupuncturist, Lavender Retreat 202-450-2329
  • Mary Rieger, acupuncturist, Healing Arts of Capitol Hill 202-544-9389
  • Marjorie Shovlin, acupuncturist, 202-547-4234.
Karen uses a pump to remove air from the plastic cups. This draws up the skin, providing even more lift to the tissue.

Pattie Cinelli is a health coach, personal trainer and Pilates and yoga instructor who has been writing her health/fitness column for more than 20 years. Please email her with questions or column ideas: