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Cupping Therapy, Explained

hat are those circular bruises on Team USA swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Alex Naddour, you ask? We’ve been seeing the after-effects of the ancient Eastern medical practice of cupping therapy all over Olympic bodies this week, but what does it really feel like and does it work? We talked to SOUL instructor and cupping veteran ARIEL PADILLA and rockstar rider DR. ANDREW FARBER about the pros and cons of cupping therapy…


When and why did you first start cupping treatment?

I tried it a few months ago and just set up another sesh with my pal, Jimmy Nataraj. Because I teach multiple classes a week, my body can feel tight and knotted up. Jimmy said cupping would help release some of the knots and tension in my back.

What is cupping, anyway?

It's a practice where through fire and suction, these glass cups are lined up your back for around 10-15 minutes to help relieve back pain and knots.

What does it feel like when it's happening?

It honestly feels kinda nice. It's a strange sensation when you have all of them on there (around 10 cups), but it doesn't hurt.

How do you feel afterward?

As soon as I stood up and stretched I immediately felt better. My back didn't feel so tight anymore.

How long do those circles last on your skin?

They were there for a few days -- like five-ish.

What would you tell someone thinking about starting cupping therapy?

Go for it! Unless you have to be in a backless gown in the next few days. I can't wait for my next session.


What's actually happening to your skin when those circular bruises appear?

In cupping, small cups generally made of glass, plastic or silicone are applied to the skin and suction is applied either with a vacuum air pump or with heat. This causes the small capillaries in the skin under suction to rupture, leaving the bruise. Kind of like a hickey!

Got it. Are there proven medical benefits to cupping therapy?

That depends on who you ask. Eastern medicine authorities cite a laundry list of indications for cupping from inflammation and chronic pain to Herpes Zoster (aka Shingles). Many believe cupping unblocks energy channels and encourages increased blood flow to areas in need of healing.

Cool. Have studies been done to back that up?

Western medical literature is somewhat scarce on the subject and very few well-designed studies have proven a clear benefit to the modality. That said, many open-minded Western practitioners employ cupping as a complementary modality to more traditional treatment options such as medication and surgery.

Are there potential downsides to cupping therapy?

Cupping is generally regarded as safe. Practically speaking, the biggest potential downside given questions of efficacy is that it may be a waste of money. Medically, bruising is expected. Reports of burns and other skin complications exist so as with any medical procedure or intervention, patients should discuss potential risks and complications with the practitioner prior to beginning. Also, patients should always check with their physicians prior to undergoing any type of medical or complementary treatment to ensure it is safe for them.

There you have it. Cupping has been around for thousands of years and while the medical jury is divided, if those Olympic bodies are any indication, the practice will be here to stay for a while… kinda like those purple circles.

The information presented is intended to be of general informational use and is not intended to constitute medical advice, probable diagnosis or recommended treatments. Please take an individual approach and consult your physician on which dietary choice is best for you.

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