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Cupping for relief of muscle pain

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If you were watching the Olympics this year wondering what were the big, red circular marks on the athletes you weren't the only one. As a physical therapist, I had to do some reading to figure out what type of treatment these athletes were going through and for what purpose.

Cupping was made very popular this year in Rio, as almost all athletes were seen trying it at least once after competing. Michael Phelps, the swimmer, had new cupping marks on both shoulder and across the back every time I saw him swim.   Cupping is a type of treatment that promotes blood flow and circulation to an area that may feel tight or even over worked. Small cups are placed on the muscles that the athlete wants worked on. The cups lift the skin off the body through a vacuum, separating the skin from the muscles for 5-10 minutes. This is said to promote blood flow to the muscles and soft tissue, which can help the athlete heal quicker. The area looks bruised after the treatment because blood vessels are being ruptured but there is no harm in this. Increased blood flow to an area will always help with healing and even just making an area feel better.

These athletes are pushing their bodies to the limit every time they compete and sometimes their bodies need a little extra help to heal to be able to perform to the extreme the very next day, and in some cases only hours later.  I heard some athletes explain that they had tried so many other types of treatment like hot tub, massage, and ice machines but cupping seemed to give them more immediate relief with longer lasting effects. "Our bodies are going to hurt after doing this for so long,” said Naddour (USA male gymnist). “It’s the best thing that I’ve ever had and it has saved me from a lot of pain.”

The big, red circular marks left after cupping are a small tradeoff for what benefit these athletes get. Also, this type of treatment can even be done without help from someone else. If you are an athlete or train rigorously, cupping might help with a more speedy recovery.

Contributed by Krista Magnoli, PTA and Nancy K. Whelan, RPT,PA. at

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