Sports cupping: Why do Athletes Use Cupping Therapy?

Sports cupping: Why do Athletes Use Cupping Therapy?

Sports cupping: Why do Athletes Use Cupping Therapy?

The ancient practice of cupping has been around for millennia as a treatment for a wide variety of medical ailments. Despite this, the benefits of cupping as an alternative therapy have only recently been recognized in the West, and the practice has only held a spot in mainstream media for a few years.

Cupping therapy first came under the mass public gaze during the 2016 Olympics, when athletes like Michael Phelps baffled onlookers by showing up to events sporting large, purple bruises. People immediately took to the internet to unveil the mystery behind these large, circular marks and the benefits of cupping therapy for sports were revealed.

But why exactly do athletes use cupping therapy, how effective is this alternative treatment for sports injuries let's get down to why so many therapists , patients and athletes swear that cupping works.

What is cupping therapy?

Cupping is an ancient healing technique that has existed in Chinese, Korean and Tibetan traditional medical systems for thousands of years and most notable within Traditional Chinese Medicine . In the West, this therapeutic treatment is becoming steadily more popular as an alternative remedy for a wide range of conditions and ailments especially affecting soft tissue. Unlike many Western medical treatments, cupping therapy doesn’t use invasive procedures or drugs. Instead, it uses the natural power of suction to promote increased local blood flow and lymphatic drainage, while stimulating the fascia, muscles and other subdermal tissues.

Cupping therapy can be broadly classified into two types: wet cupping therapy (in which an incision is made in the skin prior to the placement of cups, allowing for bloodletting at the site of treatment) and dry cupping therapy (in which no bloodletting is performed).

What happens during a sports cupping treatment?

The type of cupping therapy performed for a sports treatment is usually dry site cupping. During site cupping, glass cups, plastic cups or silicone cups are applied to specific sites on the skin which create a vacuum  using either heat or manual suction. The cups are usually left in place for around 10 minutes, where they apply negative pressure that lifts the skin and stimulates the tissue beneath. This is done to increase local blood flow, to stimulate myofascial trigger and acupuncture points under the skin and to release tension from the muscles. Alternatively, cups may be moved in a gliding motion over problem areas of the body to massage the tissues beneath the skin.

Sports cupping promotes functionality and healing in tired, aching muscles and can also be useful for relieving pain associated with sports injuries. Therefore, site cupping can be effective for aiding recovery of athletes after training sessions and competitions and as a treatment for plantar fasciitis, sciatica and frozen shoulder. 

How does sport cupping help athletes?

Sports cupping increases local blood circulation

Cupping is known to boost local blood circulation, bringing an increased supply of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues surrounding the treatment sites. For athletes with tired muscles, this can facilitate tissue repair and accelerated removal of toxins from treatment sites.

Sports cupping can release muscle tension

Stiff, painful muscles are a frequent problem for athletes, but sports cupping therapy may be able to aid their recovery after a competition. The suction created by sports cupping lifts the skin away from the underlying muscles. Many athletes report that this effect helps to relieve tension and relaxes the muscle fibers to promote their health, repair and functionality.

What conditions can be treated by sports cupping?

Cupping for athletes has been reported to relieve the pain associated with various sports-related injuries including frozen shoulder, plantar fasciitis, shin splints and sciatica. These often have painful symptoms that can impede movement and worsen quality of life. In these cases, sports cupping can be used to improve symptoms, help athletes regain their competitive edge and improve athletic performance. But does the science support these claims?

Plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is a condition affecting the plantar fascia (the band of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot and joins the heel and toes). It is commonly seen in athletes, as the condition is most often caused by repetitive strain to the plantar fascia and can result in stabbing pain and a sensation of tightness in the heel. Studies have shown that dry, sit cupping can effectively reduce this pain, making it a promising treatment for athletes.


Sciatica, a condition characterized by pain in the back, hip or thigh, is caused by compression of a spinal nerve root in the lower back. It is a common condition among athletes, especially among runners, and can impede movement in sufferers. Fortunately, several studies have found cupping therapy to be an effective method of treating back pain.

In one study, a type of therapy called pulsatile cupping (in which a machine is used to create a pulsatile vacuum using a pump) was successfully used to treat chronic lower back pain. Cupping therapy is, therefore, a promising sports treatment for athletic injuries, and may be used to reduce the pain associated with sciatica.

Frozen shoulder

Frozen shoulder is a common condition characterized by pain and restricted movement of the shoulder. Although frozen shoulder may be caused by a variety of factors, injury or trauma to the area is thought to be the main cause of the condition in athletes.

A type of gliding cupping therapy was tested as a possible treatment for frozen shoulder. When applied to the neck, chest, upper back and shoulder, this type of sports cupping was found to significantly improve pain and range of movement in one case study. 


Sports cupping is a popular treatment among athletes, massage therapists, physical therapy and athletic training. This alternative therapy is often used to release tension from stiff, painful muscles and to promote muscle repair, health and functionality. By increasing local blood flow, cupping therapy can also facilitate the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to muscle tissues. At the same time, it accelerates the removal of toxins through local lymphatic drainage, helping athletes get back into optimal shape quickly.

Cupping therapy has also been shown to relieve the pain associated with a variety of sports-related injuries such as plantar fasciitis, sciatica and frozen shoulder. By lifting the skin and stimulating the muscles and fascia beneath, sports cupping can help to promote a greater range of movement and reduce pain in the back, feet, hips, neck and shoulders.

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