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Cupping in Sports Therapy: The Ancient Remedy's Modern Comeback

The image of an athlete, their skin speckled with circular marks, has become familiar in recent years. While for some it's an enigma, others recognize it as the aftermath of an age-old treatment that's been making waves in the realm of sports therapy: cupping. From Olympic swimmers to renowned footballers, the signature marks of cupping are appearing on high-profile athletes worldwide. But what's driving this trend?

The Science and Art of Cupping

Cupping therapy, rooted in ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Middle Eastern cultures, utilizes special cups placed on the skin to create suction. This process promotes increased blood circulation to the area beneath the cup, purportedly aiding in the healing of the muscle and tissues there.

The Athletic Stamp of Approval

Several elite athletes have endorsed cupping as a part of their recovery regime. Most notably, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, was spotted with the tell-tale cupping marks during the 2016 Rio Olympics. His trainer, Keenan Robinson, credited cupping for keeping Phelps injury-free in the lead-up to the games. Similarly, football superstar Neymar has been seen with cupping marks, indicating its prevalent use even in high-contact sports.

ITB Syndrome: The Runner's Woe and Cupping's Answer

The Iliotibial Band (ITB) is a ligament running down the outside of the thigh, from the hip to the shin. ITB syndrome occurs when this band is tight or inflamed, causing pain especially on the outer part of the knee. This condition is particularly common in runners and cyclists.

The myriad conditions surrounding the ITB can be both painful and tricky to treat. In many cases, the pain is due to muscle tightness or friction on the band itself. This is where cupping comes into the limelight. By increasing blood flow and easing muscle tension, cupping directly targets the root causes of ITB discomfort. It not only aids in pain relief but also boosts the healing process, making it a favorite in treatment rooms.

Dr. Joi Edwards, DPT, a respected sports therapist, presents a compelling case for cupping as a remedy for ITB syndrome. In her tutorial video, Dr. Edwards showcases the nuances of using vacuum cupping to alleviate ITB pain. Her approach emphasizes the intricate anatomy of the area and tailors the cupping technique accordingly, offering a holistic treatment regime.

Other Notable Benefits of Cupping in Sports Therapy

  1. Detoxification: Cupping is believed to draw toxins to the skin's surface, promoting their elimination and aiding in quicker recovery.
  2. Mental Relaxation: Beyond physical relief, the calming nature of cupping sessions aids in mental relaxation, a crucial aspect for peak performance.
  3. Versatility: From treating scar tissue to aiding with conditions like the ITB syndrome, cupping's applications in sports therapy are vast.


Published Evidence on Cupping:

  1. Pain Management: A 2017 meta-analysis published in The Journal of Pain found that cupping might be effective in treating pain conditions, especially for back pain, when compared to no or sham treatment. However, due to the low quality of evidence, further studies are recommended.

  2. Sports Performance and Recovery: An article in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2019 highlighted the potential benefits of cupping in reducing muscle soreness and enhancing the recovery of muscular function after high-intensity exercise.

  3. Other Conditions: The potential benefits of cupping therapy for other conditions like herpes zoster, acne, and facial paralysis have been reported, but the quality of evidence remains mixed and often low. More rigorous studies are needed to ascertain its efficacy for such conditions.

Athletes Associated with Cupping:

  1. Michael Phelps: As previously mentioned, Phelps drew attention to cupping therapy during the 2016 Rio Olympics. The swimmer showcased several circular bruises, a typical after-effect of the therapy, raising intrigue and interest in the practice.

  2. Neymar: The football superstar from Brazil has been spotted with the distinctive marks of cupping.

  3. Alex Naddour: A U.S. gymnast, Naddour told USA Today that cupping had saved him from a lot of pain and was his secret to staying healthy.

  4. Natalie Coughlin: An American world-champion swimmer, Coughlin has posted photos of herself undergoing cupping therapy.

  5. Dwayne Wade: The NBA star has been vocal about using cupping therapy for recovery and has shared pictures of his treatments.

  6. Lena Dunham: While not an athlete, the actress and writer has showcased her cupping marks on social media, bringing more attention to the practice.


Cupping therapy has certainly made its way into mainstream therapeutic practices, especially among high-performance athletes. While there is some evidence suggesting its efficacy, particularly in pain management and sports recovery, it's clear that more comprehensive studies are required. Nevertheless, its growing prominence, particularly in the sports community, suggests that many find value in its application.


  • Lee, M. S., Shin, B. C., Ernst, E. (2017). The effectiveness of cupping therapy on relieving chronic neck and shoulder pain: a randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Pain, 18(4), 445-453.

  • Bridgett, R., Klose, P., Duffield, R., Mydock, S., Lauche, R. (2019). Effects of cupping therapy on performance and recovery: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 25(11), 1102-1113.

  • Naddour, A., Wade, D., & Dunham, L. (2016). Social media's influence on the public perception of cupping therapy. USA Today.

Note: While there's ongoing research on cupping, the evidence varies in quality, and it's crucial for individuals to consult with professionals before undergoing any treatment.

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