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What's the deal with Cupping and those red marks on your back?

What do you know about cupping, besides that it tends to leave red purple circle marks on peoples back?

There are basically 2 types of cupping. The traditional Chinese medicine (T.C.M) version and the more modern Myofascial Cupping technique.

Traditional cupping is an ancient traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves applying cups to the skin, whereby pressure is reduced using heat or suctioning out air to create a vacuum of skin and superficial muscle/fascia is held in the cup.

It’s not a new practice and has been around for centuries, apparently dating back to 281 A.D! However cupping has been popularised recently when Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps sported this around the pool, making it suddenly a bit cool for athletes to have these purple red rings on their back. I sometimes get requested for cupping for the purpose of getting these marks purposely to show off to their athlete mates they had it done. Please note that getting cupping will not make you an Olympic athlete.

One thing that is unique to cupping is that it pulls the muscle and fascia away from the body, releasing pressure. As compared with massage techniques that involve compression of the tissues. Both of these are effective and when used together can mean that we are able to approach the soft tissues in different ways meaning you can get more benefit than just massage or cupping.

Differences between traditional Chinese Cupping and Myofascial cupping technique™

Myofascial cupping involves gliding over the body with massage balm/cream and can incorporate joint movements, which is what we use at Muscle Therapy Australia.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Cupping:

- Cups are left on for a while

- Applied to acupuncture points (can overlap with trigger points used in western treatment techniques)

- Tends to leave red marks and bruising

- Can be painful where cups are left on for a long time

- Using flame with cups to produce vacuum on skin with heat

- Focuses on acupuncture points and flow of energy (chi) in the channels

Myofascial Cupping Technique™

- Cups generally glide over the body using balm and are left on for no longer than a minute or so

- Applied to trigger points as well as areas affected by pain

- Not intended to leave marks or bruising, but can incidentally but it is not the aim

- Performed at a pressure level that is almost painless due to massage balm glide

- Use of hand pump to create vacuum without use of heat

- Incorporates trigger point therapy, myofascial release techniques, manual lymphatic drainage and digestive techniques

There are variations of cupping within traditional Chinese medicine that include ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ and even the inclusion of acupuncture needles underneath the cups called ‘needle cupping’[1]. ‘Wet’ cupping involves small incisions into skin and cupping to draw blood up, where traditional practitioners believe this removes harmful substances and toxins from the body to promote healing, however it is unproven[2].

At Muscle Therapy Australia we don’t use this technique, so no cutting you open.

How are cups applied?

Traditionally cups were and still are applied using a flame to heat up the cups and as the cup cools, the pressure in cup drops creating a vacuum. At Muscle Therapy we use a modern hand pump to create a vacuum to apply the cups.

Those red marks

The red marks and bruising can result from fixed position cupping where cups are left on for a while (longer than a few minutes) as well as movement of cups. It is likely to leave more marks the longer it is held over the area, the more intensely it is applied (read below about intensity) and the less lubricant is used for gliding. The marks will last a few hours or as long as a few days.

Whilst these marks can look painful, they usually aren’t painful or harmful at all. You usually won’t even notice they are there until someone sees you with your shirt off.

How does it work?

Myofascial Cupping works through creation of negative pressure, lifting and breaking up soft tissue, promoting blood supply to the area to help with healing, while giving passive stretch to soft tissue underneath.

Cup intensity

Cup size, volume of skin/tissue suctioned up, technique used if moving the cup and the length of time the cup is left on skin affects the intensity of the treatment. Smaller cups, more tissue in the cup and the longer a cup is left on an area all drive up the intensity of the treatment. Myofascial cupping technique™ doesn’t aim to leave bruising or marks on the skin but rather aims to lift and separate tissue via negative pressure.[3]

Benefits of Myofascial cupping technique™

  • Improving range of motion in joints

  • Reducing fascial adhesions (and hardened tissue) and trigger points

  • Can assist with breaking up scar tissue

  • Reduce likelihood of injuries and aids recovery by increasing blood supply to injury

  • Help maintain functional soft tissue by increasing blood flow and fluid exchange.

  • Assist in reducing inflammation

  • Can calm down sympathetic nervous system (calm you down) and make you feel nice and relaxed.

Injuries it is particularly helpful for:

  • Overused tight postural upper body muscles like trapezius, spinal muscles, lats, pecs including QLs and lumbar area

  • Overused tight leg muscles from sports activities or otherwise in calf, quads, hamstrings, adductors

  • Plantar fasciitis – great for breaking up fascial adhesions in the feet

  • Runners knee and any ITB related issues

  • Anterior compartment syndrome in lower legs

  • Tennis Elbow

  • Carpal tunnel or RSI issues in the wrist

  • Hand fatigue from grip overuse

  • Abdominals to help relax digestion issues, specifically irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Here at Muscle Therapy, we practice Myofascial Cupping, not Traditional Chinese Medicine cupping where the cups are parked on you for a long time and where the practitioner could leave the room and make a cup of ginseng tea to return later to remove the cups*.

If you have questions about Myofascial cupping or want to try it, ask your friendly Muscle Therapy Australia practitioner the next time you’re in. As always we love feedback, so feel free to shoot us an email or post on social media about your positive experience with Cupping.

*anecdotal joke


[2] Ibid.

[3] Sheehan, D. (2002) Myofascial cupping technique™,

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