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

May 26, 2018



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