Bodyworks That Don’t Work: Cupping

Updated May 26, 2017

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about a body work that doesn’t work. I try to space these posts out because I don’t want to look like I’m hating on other professions, and because I want to give people real, genuine advice on how to be healthier and feel better in their bodies by adding massage therapy to their lives.

However, it is the 2016 Summer Olympics. I haven’t been watching because I absolutely never watch the Olympics. I’m not a huge sports gal. I have, however, seen some pictures of the events, and one in particular caught my attention. The picture in question is of US 5-time Gold Medalist Swimming Champion Michael Phelps with what appear to be perfectly circular hickeys on his back. I immediately recognized those “hickeys” as the marks of an ancient Chinese bodywork called cupping.




Immediately, I put my hand over my face in what is known throughout the internet community as a “facepalm,” usually performed when you’re at a loss of words for someone’s naïveté. The markings of cupping have been seen on numerous celebrities as of late, including Jennifer Aniston. It’s safe to say that cupping is a new trend, and since I know the tendency of normal, every-day people to buy in to these bogus fads so long as their favorite celebrity is on the bandwagon, I figured I’d spare you the time and money.

This week, Bodyworks That Don’t Work takes on Cupping.

(Insert usual no disrespect intended disclaimer here.)



Cupping is a bodywork method in which the therapist places cup-shaped objects on your skin and creates a suction with them. The cups are then left on your skin for a period of time to do their work before they are removed, leaving a hickey on your skin. Among other things, practitioners claim that cupping can assist in pain management, inflammation reduction, increased blood flow, and overall general health. They also claim that it’s effects equal that of a deep tissue massage.

There is evidence that cupping has been around in China, Egypt, and the Middle-East since at least 1500 BC, so it’s certainly one of the older types of bodywork. But just because an idea is ancient, doesn’t make it right. Remember when people use to think that human health depended on the balance of the four humors – yellow and black bile, phlegm, and blood? Remember that? Remember when Hippocrates thought that illnesses could be cured by balancing out these four humors? Remember when blood-letting was a thing? You get the point.

Anyway, the procedure of cupping is dependent on whether you get wet or dry cupping, but in general, here’s what you can expect if you still decide you want to try this bodywork out after reading this blog. (You won’t.)



Image by Acupuncture Iowa City


The practitioner will place a cup on your skin and create suction inside the cup using a pump. In older procedures still used occasionally, the practitioner will put a flammable substance inside the cup and light it on fire. Once the fire goes out naturally, the cup will be placed upside down on your back. As the air inside the cup cools down, it creates a vacuum that pulls your skin up inside the cup, turning it red. After a few moments, the cups will be removed, and you will probably be given an antibacterial ointment to prevent infection. The length of time it takes your skin to recover really depends on many factors, but it could take more than a week.



Practitioners will claim that the resulting redness is caused by your blood vessels expanding, but here’s what you should know: the suction created by these cups is really no different from the suction created by a lover putting their mouth on your neck and sucking in. The suction causes the capillaries beneath the skin to rupture, thereby creating a pool of blood just beneath the skin. Put simply: it’s a bruise. You will have many large, perfectly round bruises on your back (or wherever the cups are placed), and that’s probably just about all you’ll get out of it. Think really long and hard about it. How would cups on your skin creating a suction that causes giant bruises have any real health benefits?


Swimming - Men's 200m Butterfly - Heats

Image by Huffington Post


While it is entirely possible that the claims that cupping has all sorts of health benefits are true, they are entirely unfounded. There are no scientific studies proving that any real changes happen in your body when you receive a cupping treatment.

There are studies that suggest that cupping, paired with other treatments and medication, can help relieve symptoms of diseases varying from herpes zoster to cervical spondylosis. However researchers reviewing these studies found them to be incredibly biased – therefore not credible. That being said, it is incredibly irresponsible and conniving for practitioners to accept payment for this therapy from people who are on their last whim when it comes to the need to feel comfortable in their own body. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – people will believe someone they perceive to be an expert in an area, because they assume that this person has the correct education and that their claims are based on scientific fact. This is why I encourage you to fact check anything I say in this blog, especially if something doesn’t sound right to you. I promise I would never intentionally mislead any of my readers!

Unlike other bodyworks I’ve posted about, cupping can have undesired side-effects, which makes it even more baffling that this practice can continue without the proper research behind it. Side-effects include burning, bruising (as we talked about earlier), or even skin infection. It is ultimately up to you to decide if cupping sounds like something you’d enjoy, but if you do still want to try our it, I strongly urge you to talk to your doctor first, and see your doctor again two or three days after your cupping session to make sure your skin is healing properly.

It’s tempting to believe what someone tells you because they are the expert in the field. However, for your own health, I encourage you to do your own research to verify any information you hear before buying into these fads. While I truly believe that most people who practice these bodyworks do not have ill intentions, I do believe that they are taking advantage of their clients, whether or not they intend to.



Bodyworks That Don’t Work

Polarity Therapy






Cupping Therapy by WebMD

Here’s How Cupping Therapy Works, and Why So Many Olympians Use It by Dina Spector; Science Alert


About Tonya Sapiel, LMT

My goal with The Wellness Seeker blog is to educate the general public on the benefits of massage therapy, why it is an important addition to their health care routine, and what they can do to help themselves in between their massage therapy sessions. I welcome feedback and questions. I also accept requests for post topics. For more information about me or my practice, please visit

4 responses to “Bodyworks That Don’t Work: Cupping

  1. Pingback: Bodyworks That Don’t Work: Polarity Therapy | The Wellness Seeker

  2. Pingback: Bodyworks That Don’t Work: Reflexology | The Wellness Seeker

  3. Pingback: Bodyworks That Don’t Work: Reiki | The Wellness Seeker

  4. Pingback: Why Are Olympic Beach Volleyball Players Wearing Kinesiology TapeEngaging Muscles

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