If you’ve been following the Rio Olympics this year, then you’ve probably caught a glimpse of the large polka-dots bruises on Micheal Phelps’ shoulders.
These are the same bruises that covered the back of Wang Qun, a teenage Chinese swimmer, during Beijing Olympics.
Nope, theses aren’t love bites or paintball marks, they’re the side-effect of a Traditional Chinese healing therapy called cupping.
Originating in Asia, the Middle East and Scandinavia, cupping has been around for millennia. There are many variations in the the way that cupping can be performed : some practitioners use bamboo or porcelain cups while others precede the treatment with a massage (1,2).
Dr. Adam Perelman, executive director for Duke Integrative Medicine, told CBS News, “Cupping has probably been around as long as traditional Chinese medicine has been around — a couple thousand years.” (3)
The most popular form of cupping uses glass cups in which a cotton ball saturated with alcohol is lit and quickly removed before the glass is applied to the skin. This removes oxygen from the glass and creates a vacuum inside the cup which suctions the skin (4).
Cupping Promotes Blood and Lymph Flow
The cups may be kept in place to target key muscles or moved around on oiled skin to ease tension in tendons and large muscle groups. Cupping therapy also promotes blood and lymph flow (5).
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Internal medicine physician and certified personal trainer Dr. Michael Smith explains “The suction pulls the tight muscles and stretches the fascia, the connective tissue around the muscles, and in effect, allows blood vessels to expand. The theory is that the increased blood flow speeds healing.”
The therapy is also used to treat shingles, facial paralysis, cough, difficulty breathing, and acne. Wet cupping, a practice in which a small cut is made on the skin before applying the cup, is traditionally used for more severe health problems (6).
Both dry and wet cupping leaves circle-shaped marks that stay for about 3-4 days. These marks are caused by blood being pulled towards the surface of the skin and causing the small capillaries to rupture.
Why Do Athletes Use Cupping?
Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, explains that there’s a slight difference in how cupping is traditionally used compared to how to athletes use it now.
When administered by a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, cupping is typically part of a larger health treatment, including nutritional recommendations. However, athletes typically use hand-pumps instead of fire to create suction and tend to use cupping as a one-off treatment.
So why is cupping therapy being used at the Olympics? According to Dr. Ayaaz Farhat, co-director of the London Cupping Clinic, “Their increased use is for the same reason that freeze tanks or oxygen-rich blood injections are used by International sports teams and premiership footballers – to recover from the inevitable strains and knocks in time for the next round of competition.”
He added: “It’s not straight forward to prove how effective it is as there is such a vast range of injuries that we see, both in terms of anatomy but also the underlying cause for that problem. But simply it is a very effective way to enhance, encourage and even accelerate the body’s own immune response to injury.”
“The main benefits are encouraging the inflammatory response of the body and speeding up muscular and soft tissue recovery after injury and strain. Cupping therapy has widened significantly though in the last few years and newer techniques are being used for conditions and diseases away from sports therapy such as migraines and eczema.”(7)
The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) recommends cupping as a viable treatment for muscle soreness, but they do warn patient to only visit properly trained practitioners. As the cup is placed onto your skin, the feeling is slightly uncomfortable and warm, but should not be painful. This warmth may continue to radiate for quite a few minutes after treatment.
Olympic swimmers and gymnasts, particularly from Team USA, sporting the round bruises at Rio include swimmer Michael Phelps, gymnast Alex Naddour, and gymnastic team captain Chris Brooks.
Other athletes who have recently supported the trend include Belarusian Olympic swimmer Pavel Sankovich, Former Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin, American former professional boxer Floyd Mayweather, Scottish Olympic tennis player Andy Murray, and British professional boxer Amir Khan (8).
“I was pleasantly surprised to see cupping marks [at the Olympics]. It really speaks to this level of integration we’re seeing with many things that are considered complementary medicine,” said Perelman, who has long fought for alternative medicine to be taken more seriously by the medical community.
Dr. Ayaaz Farhat confirms that “the use of cupping therapy amongst athletes has grown over the last decade.”
Olympic athletes tend to be more open-minded than most when it comes to healing therapies, trying out strategies like sports massage, sauna, ice baths, compression garments, and more recently, Kinesio tape.
Chris Brooks says “I wish I treated my body as good then as I do now…No method hasn’t been tested. No stone hasn’t been unturned. If there’s something that’s out there that somebody believes is going to be beneficial for my situation, I gave it a shot and then we ran with what worked best for my body in particular.”
His teammate Mr. Naddour says he has found the treatment “provides relief from the soreness and pounding that come from gymnastics”. He continued : “That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy. It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else…It has saved me from a lot of pain.”
Men from the gymnastic team apply the cups to each other before and after training instead of visiting a professional, which may undermine its efficacy. They insist that the treatment is better than massage because it pulls up muscles instead of pressing them down.
Not all medical professionals agree with the benefits of cupping. Science author Simon Singh and former professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, Edzard Ernst wrote in their book Trick or Treatment that cupping “has a long history but there is no evidence that it generates positive effects in any medical condition.”
However, a review of 550 clinical studies (including 73 randomized controlled trials) that was published in 2010 confirmed that the “majority of studies show potential benefit on pain conditions, herpes zoster and other diseases.” (9).
And honestly, if it’s good enough for an Olympic athlete, it’s certainly good enough to heal our little aches and pains.