Circle Around

Why athletes have embraced the traditional Chinese technique of cupping

While cupping became a breakout star of the Rio Olympics (remember the telltale red circles on swimmer Michael Phelps’ shoulders?), it’s been part of traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years—long before we could drop names alongside the treatment. Rooted in the belief that sluggish blood and low energy flow can lead to health problems, it involves placing heated cups, usually made of glass, on targeted areas of the body. As the air inside the cups cools, it draws skin up into the vessel, which promotes blood flow.

“I like to call it reverse massage, because it’s pulling up on the tissue instead of adding pressure,” says Sara Koron, a licensed acupuncturist who performs cupping and other Chinese medicine services at Awaken Whole Life Center in Unity Village.

Restoring blood flow can jump-start the body’s own tissue repair process to help strained muscles heal and avoid further injury, which may explain why professional athletes—a group susceptible to strain and injury—have embraced it, says Koron.

It loosens muscles immediately. And while some of our own Kansas City Royals are fans of cupping, too, it’s not just for athletes. Research suggests it’s a safe, effective treatment for back, neck, and knee pain, and Koron says it can also be helpful for those “seeking support for conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, stroke rehabilitation or hypertension.”

Often, one session is all it takes to notice an improvement. Like deep-tissue massage, the effects of cupping can reach about four inches below the skin. But those who shy away from deep tissue because of the discomfort may find cupping more tolerable according to Koron. Of course, it should only be performed by a licensed acupuncturist with specific training in Chinese medicine and how to cup safely (find one at And those red dots? They typically fade in just a few days.