Cupping Is Having a Moment — Here's What You Need to Know About the Benefits

Experts break down the benefits of the Olympian and celeb-loved ancient treatment.

What Does Cupping Therapy Do?
Photo: Getty Images/InStyle

You probably remember cupping blowing up during the 2016 Summer Olympics when Michael Phelps was spotted in the pool with bright red circular marks all over his back. But cupping has been a thing long before Olympic swimmers and gymnasts were having cupping treatments to ease muscle strain. Yes, it was around even before Gwyneth Paltrow walked the red carpet in 2004 with evidence of cupping on her back, before Madonna Instagrammed her back during a cupping session, and before Justin and Hailey Bieber showed off their cupping marks during a beach trip.

The practice dates back to ancient Egypt and China and can be used for anything from boosting your circulation and immune system to calming your nerves, or even acne. And it's having a moment again right now — after all, it's quick, affordable, non-invasive, and you can even take the treatment on-the-go with you with new at-home cupping kits.

Here's what you need to know about what cupping therapy does, its side effects (which include those often-Instagrammed circular marks) and all the potential benefits this traditional East Asian medicine treatment can have for your health.

What Is Cupping?

Cupping (and the marks it can leave behind) might sound a little intimidating, but the process is pretty straightforward. "A suction cup is placed on the body that lifts up on the connective tissue and muscles to create a mild stretch and increase circulation," says licensed acupuncturist Shari Auth, DACM [Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine], co-founder and Chief Healing Officer at WTHN in New York City.

You'll often see static cupping, where the suction cup is suctioned on a fixed place on the body, like the back, which creates a stronger effect and might leave marks. But there's also another type of cupping, called moving cupping, in which a practitioner uses a lubricant to slide the suction cups along the surface of the skin. This leaves fewer marks typically, and can even be used on the skin of the face, Auth explains.

It's common to pair cupping with an acupuncture treatment to increase the benefits. "Acupuncture works [primarily] on the internal systems, like hormones and digestion, whereas cupping is more beneficial to the outer layers of the body, like muscle tension or immunity," says Anna Gold, DACM, a licensed acupuncturist based in the San Francisco Bay, California area. The combo of the two might help you feel more relaxed and release more tension than just one or the other practice alone. However, both acupuncture and cupping have their health perks if you choose to have the treatments by themselves, too.

The Benefits of Cupping

It helps with muscle recovery.

One of the classic reasons cupping is used is for muscle repair. If your muscles are tight, sore, or even if you have acute pain, cupping might help, especially paired with an acupuncture session, Auth says. According to a 2021 study, cupping applies pressure to the soft tissue, and that stress in the blood vessels pushes the body to create anti-inflammatory proteins that help jump-start muscle recovery. The relief may take about 24 hours to set in, though, the research states.

Cupping enhances circulation.

Beyond your soft tissue, cupping reaches your blood to increase circulation. "The cups isolate blood through this suction, and then de-oxygenate unhealthy or stagnant blood, which usually shows up as chronic pain or muscle tension," explains Gabriel Sher, board-certified acupuncturist and Director of Acupuncture at ORA in New York City. "Once the cups are removed, the body sends new and fresh red blood cells to regenerate these areas," he adds.

Because of that suction temporarily cutting off blood flow and drawing heavier blood (which can increase the risk of blood clots) out, you might feel some discomfort during cupping. Though once the heavier blood moves out of the bloodstream, thinner, healthier blood regulated with salts and potassium can circulate, Sher says.

It might help treat some G.I. issues.

Like acupuncture, cupping is another mode of getting things moving in your digestive system, and may be used to treat conditions like IBS and constipation. "For gastrointestinal issues, cupping on the abdomen improves circulation and moves gas through the intestines," Sher says. That can help relieve bloating and constipation for sure, and also stimulates peristalsis, the contraction of the stomach muscles that helps digestion move along.

Cupping may be used to relieve some skin conditions.

It's possible that cupping can be a helpful treatment option for symptoms of some inflammatory skin conditions, including acne and hives, Sher points out. One study published in the Journal of Integrative Medicine suggests that cupping, especially in combination with an antihistamine, can quell allergic reactions associated with chronic urticaria (aka recurring hives). The cupping process helps the blood create histamine-like substances to fight off the allergic reaction.

Other research found that certain types of cupping might be helpful for quicker healing of severe acne, since there's increased blood flow to that area.

It can help your breathing.

If you're having breathing issues, either chronic or from being sick, cupping may be worth a try. "In East Asian medicine, cupping is utilized to move stagnation (increase circulation and decrease pain). This also adds to opening up the lungs to relieve asthmatic breathing, and expelling wind pathogens, which may help treat symptoms of colds, viruses, and the flu," Gold says.

Cupping may boost your immunity.

Now we're not suggesting that cupping will prevent or cure Covid, but it might contribute to an overall healthy immune response. Because the suction cups create a temporary site of inflammation, the immune system shifts into high gear to diffuse that inflammation, research has found. Also, cupping stimulates the movement of healthy red blood cells, which are essential to immune system function.

It can lower your cholesterol.

Cupping has been shown to lower cholesterol, Gold explains. Why? Better circulation of blood can prevent clotting or blockages from high levels of LDL, a type of protein associated with high cholesterol.

Cupping may calm your nervous system.

The process of cupping may contribute to better moods overall, or at least a sense of relaxation afterward, Gold says. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which pushes the body into "rest and digest" mode after the pressure increases and blood supply is cut off, according to research. That helps deactivate the sympathetic nervous system, says Gold, which is the part of your nervous system responsible for sweating, panicking, and all other times you're in "fight or flight mode."

Are there any cupping side effects?

Most commonly, cupping will result in those signature circular marks that can appear from the increased circulation where the cup was placed, Auth says. Those marks, which are not technically bruises, won't necessarily be painful, and they'll likely go away in three to ten days, she adds. If you want them to fade faster, try cardio exercise or a hot bath to increase your circulation. You can also apply arnica cream to the marks to help them fade, Auth says.

There are a few other rare side effects from cupping. They include lightheadedness, nausea, soreness, and skin discoloration after the treatment, Gold says.

Is there anyone who shouldn't try cupping?

If you have any kind of broken skin, wound, rash, or skin abrasion, you should hold off on cupping and wait until those heal, Sher says. And cupping isn't recommended for anyone with sunburn or psoriasis either, adds Gold, so it doesn't further irritate burnt or sensitive skin. Cupping is also not recommended for people with bleeding disorders or abscesses, she adds. And heads' up, if you're currently pregnant, you can try cupping as long as it's comfortable, but your practitioner should know to avoid using cupping on certain areas of the body.

The bottom line on cupping

If you're curious about the many benefits of cupping, it might be worth giving the ancient treatment a try. It's low-risk, non-invasive, and unlike many of the wellness treatments popularized by Hollywood stars and Olympians alike, this one's actually accessible — most cupping sessions run from $30 to $80, depending on where you're located. You can find a certified traditional East Asian medicine practitioner near you using the NCCAOM directory.

Or, if you're not near a major city, you can actually try this at home (really!). WTHN has a new Body Cupping Kit ($68, wthn.com), complete with eight cups, a carrying kit, and detailed instructions that'll walk you through everything you need to know for a DIY cupping experience.

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