Purpose: The purpose of this literature review is to investigate the efficacy of dry cupping as a method for pain reduction in competitive swimmers.

Background: Competitive swimming increased to a member base of over 335,000 in 2015. Elite swimmers can perform between 500-thousand to 1-million arm cycles in each year. The repetitive overhead motion of swimming can lead to overuse injuries over time. During the 2016 Olympics, some swimmers appeared with visible round bruises left by a Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment method of cupping.

Case Description: The patient is a 28-year-old female swimmer who trains with a Masters Swim Team and competes in triathlons. She presented to an orthopedic outpatient clinic with self-diagnosed swimmer’s shoulder with a duration of 6 months. The patient had noticed that cupping was being used by elite athletes and inquired as to its efficacy in treating shoulder pain.

Methods: Several databases were searched regarding the use of cupping therapy for the treatment of shoulder pain in swimmers. A review of the current literature revealed that there is low level evidence for the use of cupping in pain reduction but no studies have been conducted on swimmers. In contrast, there was sufficient evidence to suggest that exercise and stretching can have a significant effect on both pain and function of the shoulder in competitive swimmers. Discussion: Due to the lack of evidence of the use of cupping in swimmers, a decision of its efficacy must be extrapolated from the scarce amount of studies available. Studies have shown that cupping may be able to decrease pain by an average of 20mm on the Visual Analog Scale. This suggests that in the painful shoulder it may be used as an adjunct to exercise therapy but should not replace it as cupping does not address the underlying impairments that swimming induces on the shoulder.

Level of Evidence: 5

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)

First Advisor

Kathy Dieruf, PT, Ph.D., NCS


swimmer's shoulder, dry cupping, physical therapy, shoulder, swimming