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Is Cupping Any Good for You?

September 06, 2016

You, like I probably wondered what those dark purple marks were on athletes during the Summer Games in Rio. Michael Phelps had them all over his body. I’ve also noticed them in other sports on champion boxer Floyd Mayweather and tennis star Andy Murray.

They’ve all done cupping, an ancient form of Chinese medicine that is said to help the body heal more quickly, supposedly enabling athletes to perform at their peak. People who do the therapy say it improves circulation, removes toxins from the body and relieves pain. But does it?

How Cupping Works

Cupping typically is performed by a trained practitioner. He or she places vacuum cups on the skin and then uses heat or an air pump to suction the skin, gently pulling it away from the muscle. The treatment usually takes several minutes, but it leaves noticeable purple circles at the application site after it’s administered. That’s because the suction process causes the capillaries to rupture, which leads to bruising.

In other forms of cupping therapy, a practitioner may fill the cups with alcohol, herbs or paper and light up the substance inside the container. As the fire extinguishes, he or she will then place the cup on the skin, an approach called dry cupping. With wet cupping, a therapist will leave the cup on the skin for a few minutes to create mild suction, then remove the cup and use a small scalpel to make small cuts in the skin before suctioning again to draw out small amounts of blood. There’s also needle cupping, which combines acupuncture and cupping therapy.

Though it’s best for a trained practitioner to administer the treatment, some athletes and consumers have purchased cupping kits online to do it themselves (a feat that requires a level of flexibility and dexterity that would be near impossible for regular folks who aren’t world-class athletes). Doing it yourself for the first time is not recommended so please seek professional guidance before starting your own routine.

Is Cupping Any Good?

Michael Phelps recently told the New York Times he does cupping before every competition. The fact that the most decorated Olympian in U.S. history — racking up gold medal after gold medal — does this therapy is giving it more validity.

“I’ve done it before meets, pretty much every meet I go to,” Phelps told the paper. “So I asked for a little cupping yesterday because I was sore and the trainer hit me pretty hard and left a couple of bruises.”

Even with Phelps’s endorsement, the jury is still out about whether cupping actually works.

One on side, some in the medical community argue that cupping creates a placebo effect that makes athletes think the therapy actually produces benefits that help them heal so they can perform better in their sport. On the other side are those who say cupping is an alternative form of treatment just like acupuncture, homeopathy or Shiatsu. They say it also may prompt the immune system to produce cytokines, small proteins that facilitate cell-to-cell communication and improve the body’s immune response.

Just because cupping doesn’t fit into the confines of traditional Western medicine doesn’t mean it isn’t effective, advocates say. There’s some truth to that argument. Traditional Chinese medicine has been practiced for centuries, giving some people relief they haven’t been able to achieve with other therapies. However, I would say that if someone is doing cupping — or any other alternative therapy, for that matter — in place of proven treatments for a serious illness or chronic condition, then they should reconsider that approach. Alternative therapies can be complementary to traditional therapies, and in many cases, it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

So, if having purple circles all over your body is a necessary trade-off for relief for minor aches and pains, then cupping is worth trying — but it might be best to do your due diligence and talk to your doctor first.