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Inside the Cup

Everything old is new again—including this age-old restorative device

Arrangement of glass cupping jars

By Sally Jarzab | Photograph by Douglas Levere

When swimmer Michael Phelps appeared during last summer’s Olympic Games with purple, bruise-like marks dotting his back, it was many people’s first introduction to the traditional healing technique known as “cupping.”

But Algirdas Gamziukas (MD ’60, BS ’56), who donated his family’s antique cupping set to the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences’ Turn-of-the-Century Apothecary and Historical Exhibits, has been deeply familiar with the practice since his childhood days in Lithuania, when his grandmother performed cupping on him to treat chest colds.

And did it work? “It did …” Gamziukas says, with just a short pause, “absolutely nothing.” Nothing, that is, except make him feel self-conscious when he went swimming with the other boys, looking, as he describes it, “like a leopard.”

No harm done, Gamziukas concedes, and he doesn’t deny that some may have a more encouraging experience. Many do swear by the ancient therapy, and it’s making a comeback among athletes, performers and others looking for alternative ways to manage pain, improve circulation, boost immunity or achieve one of the various other benefits attributed to it.

Go ahead and grab a cup

Cupping uses suction to temporarily pull up the skin from the muscles underneath and draw blood into the area. Here’s how this set works: To create the suction, alcohol is applied with a gauze-wrapped swab to the inside of the glass cup and lit with a candle flame. As the oxygen burns up, a vacuum forms in the cup, which is then quickly placed upon the skin, left for several minutes and then removed with a “pop.”

Good for what ails you—and then some

Gamziukas’ grandmother used it to relieve chest congestion, but cupping has been employed to treat a rather eclectic range of maladies, including acne, eczema, depression, anxiety, anemia, high blood pressure, arthritis, fibromyalgia, infertility, asthma, migraines and varicose veins. It also has been used as a form of deep-tissue massage.

A forgotten family heirloom

This particular cupping set is thought to have come from Russia, acquired by Gamziukas’ father sometime around the turn of the 19th century. It was kept in his grandparents’ home in rural Lithuania, before the family fled during World War II. When his mother got the message to evacuate, she hastily took things from the medicine cabinet she thought might be useful. Packed into a suitcase, the cupping set was rediscovered many years later, when Gamziukas was living in Buffalo. 

Celebrity spotting

Though Michael Phelps isn’t the only celebrity cupper (others reportedly include Jennifer Aniston and Justin Bieber), his highly visible welts at the 2016 Olympics made cupping a trending topic.

Photo of Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps  with cupping marks on his arms

Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images