The Quick Guide To Cupping Therapy For Athletes

As an athlete, you have a litany of different recovery methods, techniques, and tools to help optimize your performance. With recovery tools such as Cryotherapy, Graston, Red Infrared Light, Float tanks, Electric Muscle Stimulators such as Compex and PowerDot, compressions sleeves and more it’s important to know which ones really work, when to apply them, and their benefits. Used for thousands of years, Cupping therapy has become increasingly popular to help remove toxins and improve blood circulation, to relieve pain and optimize recovery. The question is, does it really work?

What Is Cupping Therapy And How Does It Work?

Well known for its iconic and recognizable circular purple bruises, cupping therapy has been used in traditional ancient medicine for over 5,000 years, to stimulate blood flow and relieve minor aches and pains. Today, athletes of all calibers use cupping therapy to promote faster recovery by reducing inflammation and increasing blood flow.

Cupping therapy involves creating a suction on the skin using a glass, ceramic, bamboo, or plastic cup. Negative pressure is created by applying a flame to remove the oxygen or with a suction device, after the cup is applied. This essentially creates a vacuum, contracting and increasing blood flow. The most common areas of treatment include the upper back, lower back, quads, hamstrings, and calves [R].

According to the International Cupping Therapy Association, Cupping therapy can aid in muscle recovery by

  • Draining and removing stagnant fluid
  • Relieving inflammation
  • Stretching muscle and connective tissue
  • Increasing blood flow
  • Expelling congestion

Now that we know how cupping therapy works, does it really help relieve muscle soreness and optimize post workout recovery?

What Are The Benefits Of Cupping Therapy?

Much like other recovery treatments and modalities, cupping therapy isn’t a cure, nor is it going to relieve all of your aches and pains so you can smash multiple WODs the next day, without still have some semblance of muscle soreness. Treatment might give you some relief, but you’re still going to feel the heavy set of thrusters you did the day before. While there haven’t been many well-designed clinical studies to provide evidence-based benefits, acupuncturists from the International Cupping Therapy Association claim that cupping therapy can

  • Improve immunity by increasing lymphatic output
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Optimize athletic performance
  • Increase overall well-being
  • Improve blood flow
  • Fasten exercise induced muscle recovery

According to a systematic review and meta-analysis of over 600 studies, cupping was found to decrease neck pain, lower back pain, increase functionality, and improve overall quality of life. However due to poor quality in treatment protocol and study design, no definitive conclusion can be drawn based upon these studies to determine whether or not cupping therapy actually works [R, R].

Does Cupping Therapy Really Work?

Although the studies suggest that cupping therapy might reduce chronic low back pain and neck pain, the problem is in the study design. It’s hard to ‘double-blind’ a study, when you’re administering the therapy to a patient. In high quality studies, neither the researchers nor the participants know, whether or not they’re getting the treatment intervention or the placebo. The researchers then take their results and compare to find any substantial differences in the control arms or between the groups. Since patients would know that they’re receiving cupping as the treatment modality, the results are bias since they cause a placebo effect. If people think they’re getting a treatment, that belief can help to improve the outcome.

Ultimately, the goal of cupping therapy, is to achieve relaxation, much like a massage. If you can relax after a cupping session, that could lead to greater improvements in recovery, less stress, and better sleep. Your best bet, is to just try it and see for yourself.

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Kim S, Lee S, Kim M, et al Is cupping therapy effective in patients with neck pain? A systematic review and meta-analysis BMJ Open 2018;8:e021070. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-021070 

Moura CC, Chaves ÉCL, Cardoso ACLR, Nogueira DA, Corrêa HP, Chianca TCM. Cupping therapy and chronic back pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. Rev Lat Am Enfermagem. 2018;26:e3094.

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