The treatment has been mostly available as a therapy given by physical therapists, acupuncturists, or massage therapists. But thanks to a new class of at-home electric cupping machines, it’s easier, cheaper, and more accessible than ever for anyone to try out the “decompression” recovery technique on their own. Earlier this year, recovery device leader Therabody debuted the TheraCup ($149), and fitness equipment maker Lifepro released the Relievacup ($50). There are a handful of other electronic options available from less well-known brands, such as the Revo Smart Cupper ($60), as well as non-electronic cups that use manual air suction. The Relievacup also vibrates and delivers red light therapy, the Theracup vibrates and applies heat, and the Revo Smart Cupper does all three.
Can you get the same caliber of Michael Phelps–approved muscle recovery and pain relief from these DIY products? To answer that question, it’s helpful to know a bit about cupping.
What does cupping do, and is it effective?
In contrast to tissue-compressing therapies like foam rolling, manual massage, or massage guns, practitioners describe cupping as a “decompression” technique because the suction lifts the tissue up and away rather than pushing it down. The effect of this is multifaceted—and somewhat debatable.
“In practice as a physical therapist, we use cupping as a tool to assist with myofascial manipulation,” which means moving around muscles and fascia, says physical therapist Jacob VanDenMeerendonk, DPT. “The cups create a negative pressure that suctions to the skin and allows us to mobilize and stretch the myofascial tissue.” There are a variety of techniques, including PT exercises, that mobilize the tissue, and cupping is just one tool in the physical therapist’s box. Dr. VanDenMeerendonk says myofascial manipulation is well-established as a science-backed technique, although there is not yet clear evidence specifically supporting cupping as an effective way to do that.
Additionally, cupping is supposed to promote blood flow, says exercise physiologist Sharon Gam, PhD, CSCS. Increasing blood flow to a fatigued or tight muscle is a key tenet of multiple recovery methods, including massage.
“You want more blood flow because blood brings oxygen and nutrients with it and takes away waste products,” Dr. Gam says. “So if you have increased blood flow, then that can help improve cellular repair and tissue functioning and things like that.”
Dr. Gam describes this as a “plausible” explanation for the restorative effect that cupping devotees say it can have on the body. It’s also possible that it could have a more overall healing effect, by causing the release of endogenous opioids, says Gam. “So things like endorphins and other substances in your brain that essentially just make you feel less pain. So it does probably have a systemic pain-relieving effect.”
There are other touted effects of cupping, like “removing toxins” from tissues and blood, however “these theories are rooted in cultural traditions and beliefs rather than scientific evidence,” says Dr. VanDenMeerendonk.
“I just don’t expect any miracles from it.” —Sharon Gam, PhD, CSCS
In general when it comes to cupping, evidence is scant. There are some studies showing cupping’s ability to improve range of motion and assist with pain relief in people with chronic conditions. But there aren’t gold standard double-blind studies proving cupping’s efficacy, mainly because it’s impossible to design a placebo for cupping—subjects and researchers either know it’s happening, or they don’t. That leads to a mixed bag of research with conclusions mostly stating that more study is needed.
“There are some studies that have found it to be significantly effective, there’s other studies that haven’t found cupping to be very effective,” Dr. Gam says. “There’s just not enough high-quality research to really be able to say for certain whether it actually works.”
Still, Dr. Gam actually practices cupping on herself after workouts for its blood flow and pain-relieving potential because the modality makes sense to her—and because it makes her feel good.
“I just don’t expect any miracles from it,” Dr. Gam says. “In my experience, it doesn’t totally get rid of soreness. It doesn’t improve performance or anything like that. But it is one of a few different tools that I use just to feel a little bit better.”
Can at-home cupping help with pain relief?
The first difference you’ll notice between the spots covering a recently-cupped athlete’s back and an at-home electric cupping machine is that professionally-done cupping usually results in multiple markings—presumably done by arrays of multiple cups—while at-home devices have just one cup. So yes, you can do cupping at home, but it would be more time-consuming to cover a larger area with just one cup versus having a practitioner use an array. However, this “localized” therapy is by design.
“This is more of a targeted treatment,” says Lissa Bankston, Therabody’s director of education marketing and media, about the Theracup versus Therabody’s other products, like the Theragun. “People are reaching for Theracups when they have this one trigger point, knot, or very specific area that’s really sore and targeted to that area and quite sensitive to the touch. I think that’s when they’re probably gravitating more towards suction because when touch is sensitive, suction is going to provide that relief by decompressing and then you’re kind of able to address that very specific problem.”
Dr. Gam doesn’t see localization as a problem—it’s one of the benefits of cupping. However, she does think using cupping effectively might be a bit more complicated than simply sticking the cup in the spots where you’re feeling pain.
“That increase in blood flow is very localized, and so you do need to have a decent idea about anatomy to know how to target the right muscles and where exactly to put the cup,” says Dr. Gam. “It’s user-friendly enough that you can get close on your own if you don’t have that knowledge. But I think a massage therapist or a physical therapist or somebody that really does know where all the muscles are and how they lie on top of each other is going to be the person that will put the cups in the right spot.” (At the very least, she suggests consulting an anatomy diagram before trying this at home.)
Approaching cupping the way Dr. VanDenMeerendonk does—as a way to pull the tissue in different directions as a sort of an alternative to massage—would also be hard to pull off with an at-home device. The way the cups mostly work is that you affix them to your skin, set your pressure, and let them do their magic on one spot.
“In physical therapy, we would manually move the cups while the suction is in place to manipulate the myofasical tissue,” explains Dr. VanDenMeerendonk. “We could have the patient participate in movement exercises that directly relate to the location that the cups have been applied. So I believe the specificity is much greater when done by a PT or massage therapist.”
One exception is that the Theracup has a “pro” mode that does let you glide the cup across the skin. It also has suggested paths to follow for different types of pain, soreness, and sensitivities that users can check out in the Therabody App.
An advantage of the smart at-home devices is the addition of vibration, heat, and red light therapy. Along with the decompression, these modalities could all work to stimulate the blood flow and endogenous opioids further.
“Physiologically, I think it is plausible that combining them would be a little bit better,” Dr. Gam says. Bankston says another purpose of the heat and vibration is to make the experience of cupping more pleasurable, so that you’re more likely to reach for it (and reap the benefits) more often than you would something that doesn’t feel good in the moment.
“The good news is, there aren’t any major negative effects to self-cupping.” –Jacob VanDenMeerendonk, DPT
Another pro for the electric cupping machines in particular is that they standardize the amount of pressure and have “safety guardrails.” Each session on the Theracup is only three minutes long, so the risk of overdoing it is low. And you know that the amount of pressure you’re getting is enough to compare to a professional’s suction levels, but it won’t suction too hard either (which could be an issue with some of the manual at-home cupping devices).
“When you’re using more of a traditional cupping configuration like dry cupping—where you either use flame to remove the oxygen or you’re using a device that sucks out all of the air—there’s a lot of ambiguity or a little bit of objectivity to [the question of] am I getting the right amount of suction for this particular injury or spot?” Bankston says. “That’s where our technology really takes that front seat and says, we can put up some guardrails to create appropriate suction to maximize your experience and then also optimize the treatment plan that you’re using the cup for.”
In addition to the fact that cupping itself is not the most scientifically-proven recovery technique, these devices are too new to have solid data backing up their efficacy. Still, they have potential—and at the very least, probably won’t do any harm (except to your wallet).
“Most of the evidence behind self-cupping devices at home are anecdotal,” says Dr. VanDenMeerendonk. “Some people will swear by them, while others will have felt nothing at all. The good news is, there aren’t any major negative effects to self-cupping. In other words, cupping may help with your pain and mobility, or it may do nothing at all.”
Three ways to try this at home
Therabody TheraCup — $149.00
Therabody’s smart cupping device is aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. It has three suction settings, three cup sizes, and offers heat and vibration. Costing three times more than its competitors, it’s up to you whether the research-backed “safety guardrails,” beveled edges to minimizes markings, the “pro mode” gliding feature, and app-based user guidelines are worth the higher price tag.
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