When decorated Olympian Michael Phelps hit the pool deck a few months ago, many people wondered, “What on earth are those purple marks on his shoulders?”  In case you missed the discussion, we’re here to give you the inside scoop behind them: cupping, or a soft tissue technique practiced by massage therapists, acupuncturists, and our very own Katie Murphy L.Ac, right here at Absolute Wellness Center.

First, a little history. The first mention of cupping goes all the way back to 281–341 A.D. when the famous Taoist herbalist, Ge Hong, discussed cupping in the Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. Here, the cups were actually water buffalo horns that drained pustules. Since then, cups have progressed…to bamboo, then earthenware, and finally to the present — glass and plastic. That’s lucky for the patient, since animal horns, bamboo and earthenware have a tendency to deteriorate, break and cut the skin with their fragmented edges. Another plus for plastic and glass is the acupuncturist can easily see into the cups and gauge the amount of suction.

And cups do way more than drain pustules these days. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cups:

  • Dispel Cold and Damp
  • Promote the free flow of Qi and Blood
  • Expel external pathogens that reside in the Wei Qi (Protective) level


  1. So that means what?


In layman’s terms, cups:

  • Help relieve muscular pain
  • Diminish swelling
  • Help with respiratory issues, including asthma and coughs
  • Improve symptoms of the common cold
  • Relieve headaches
  • Alleviate pain from GI issues
  • Help with some skin conditions
  • Improve gynecological disorders, including uterine cramping and irregular menstruation


Yes, cupping can do all that. And it only takes 5-15 minutes at the end of your acupuncture treatment. Depending on what ails you and the intensity of your condition, constitution and age, the acupuncturist has five options:

  • Dry cupping. Here, the cups remain stationary on the skin for the full 5-15 minutes. This technique causes those red-purple circular marks similar to those found on Michael Phelps’ back and shoulders. Depending on the amount of suction, this kind of cupping can be beneficial in many ways: reduce stress, strengthen the patient’s constitution, improve digestive issues and alleviate pain.
  • Wet cupping. This entails using a lancet to prick the skin, then applying the cup over the puncture to pull out the stagnant blood. This blood-letting technique sounds very 18th century, but it’s very effective in alleviating pain and reducing rashes and spider veins.
  • Sliding cups. Lubrication is spread on the skin over a larger surface like the back or leg. The cup is then applied, sliding it up and down the length of the area. This is used mainly for tight, painful muscles.
  • Cupping over a needle. The needle is inserted and the cup is applied over the needle. This, too, can alleviate pain and disperse heat in the form of swollen, inflamed skin.
  • Empty cupping. A single cup is applied to the skin, then immediately removed, continuing this process for a short period of time. This is particularly effective for children and those who are weak, frail or deficient. This kind of cupping helps raise the patient’s immunity especially when a cold or flu is just beginning.


Most likely you’ll be leaving with a few marks. You can just tell your friends you won the battle with a squid on IOP. But don’t worry. Those red-purple circles should fade within a few days. Just make sure to keep those marks covered for the rest of the day — in Chinese Medicine, exposing them to the air can potentially predispose you to a cold. But it won’t be a problem if you keep your shirt on for a few hours. And I’ll tell you this. You’ll most likely be feeling a lot better leaving than you did coming in. And that makes all the difference.


Give cupping a try at your next acupuncture appointment. Just ask and we’ll see if cupping would be an effective adjunct to your regular needling session.