Cupping – An Effective Solution for Pain Relief?

If you tuned into the 2016 Olympics, you have probably heard about cupping, and how “everyone”, including gold medalist Michael Phelps, is having it done.

So, what is cupping?

Cupping started out as a traditional practice in Chinese medicine but has recently become very popular in western medicine. The application of cupping and uses for cupping are slightly different when used in western medicine, but the basic purpose is for mobilization of tissues. Most specifically it’s used for mobilization of myofascial tissue to allow structures that pass through the area of treatment, such as nerves, to move more smoothly.

The research…

In a pilot study researching cupping, 21 patients received cupping treatment to their low back for relief of chronic low back pain. Patients experienced both a significant decrease in perceived pain in the low back as well as a significant increase in tolerance to applied pressure on the back before pain was felt.

One cupping study was performed on women who had just given birth with the desired outcome of relieving low back pain and preventing chronic pain in the future. The women in the cupping group had significantly higher reduction in low back pain symptoms after 24 hours, as well as 2 weeks after receiving treatment in comparison to the control group.

Another study of 21 patients with knee osteoarthritis receiving 8 sessions of pulsatile dry cupping within 4 weeks, twice per week. The cupping group showed significantly better pain relief at 4 weeks and 12 weeks post treatment than for the 19 patients in the control group who did not receive cupping.

So What?

While more research is needed to further validate the pain relief effect cupping can have for many other pathologies, it is apparent that it can be a very useful pain relief tool to be used by physical therapists. It is a technique I have been lucky enough to have had done on myself to help relieve nerve pain.

You don’t have to be an Olympian to receive gold medal treatment!


Akbarzadeh, M., Ghaemmaghami, M., Yazdanpanahi, Z., Zare, N., Azizi, A., & Mohagheghzadeh, A. (2014). The Effect Dry Cupping Therapy at Acupoint BL23 on the Intensity of Postpartum Low Back Pain in Primiparous Women Based on Two Types of Questionnaires, 2012; A Randomized Clinical Trial. International Journal of Community Based Nursing and Midwifery, 2(2), 112–120.

Markowski, A., Sanford, S., Pikowski, J., Fauvell, D., Cimino, D., & Caplan, S. (2014). A pilot study analyzing the effects of Chinese cupping as an adjunct treatment for patients with subacute low back pain on relieving pain, improving range of motion, and improving function. Journal Of Alternative And Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.), 20(2), 113-117. doi:10.1089/acm.2012.0769

Teut, M., Kaiser, S., Ortiz, M., Roll, S., Binting, S., Willich, S. N., & Brinkhaus, B. (2012). Pulsatile dry cupping in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee – a randomized controlled exploratory trial. BMC Complementary And Alternative Medicine, 12184. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-12-184