Olympic athletes are always looking for ways to give themselves an edge over their competitors, and the latest trend is obviously working for record-high gold medalist, Michael Phelps.
The circular bruises on Phelps’ and other athletes’ shoulders have sparked a curiosity about their origin, with the world left speculating how they’re formed. It has recently been revealed that athletes are turning to an ancient holistic therapy, known as cupping, which could date back as far as 3000 BC.
What is cupping therapy?
Cupping is an ancient form of alternative medicine in which a trained professional places suction cups on your skin for 2-3 minutes.
Cups can be made of glass, bamboo, silicone, or clay. Two cupping methods exist, known as wet-cupping and dry-cupping, with dry-cupping being the most common in athletes.
Cups are filled with a flammable substance and set on fire, and as the fire goes out, they are placed on the skin to create a vacuum. This vacuum causes the skin to rise into the cup and redden as the blood vessels expand. Wet-cupping involves two cupping sessions on the same spot, drawing a small amount of blood out of the area.
The British Cupping Society notes that it is common to get 3-5 cups on the first session and that 7 cups are usually the limit for any session.
Cupping therapy falls into the pseudoscience category, with little evidence linked to its claimed health benefits.
The British Cupping society reports that cupping therapy can be useful in aiding muscle recovery, improving blood flow, reducing acne, and eliminating back pain, but with the lack of scientific evidence, some Doctors say that it could all simply be a placebo effect.
In 2012, Chinese and Australian researchers reviewed the results from 135 studies on cupping, and they published their findings in a PLoS One report. It was concluded that cupping therapy may be effective in treating acne, respiratory ailments, and pain management. In 2015, a report published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine noted the same findings, linking cupping therapy to a host of health benefits.
In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that cupping stimulates energy flow and helps the body to heal itself, especially when used in conjunction with acupuncture and other natural medications.
What are the risks?
As long as you go to a trained cupping professional, the risks of this therapy are fairly low. Some of the side effects reported include bruising, mild discomfort, and skin infection.
When done correctly, cupping therapy should be perfectly painless and safe.
Which athletes are using it?
The legendary Michael Phelps is using cupping therapy to take him to unprecedented heights in his swimming career, chalking up more gold medals than any Olympian in history.
Gymnast Alex Naddour, swimmer Wang Qun, and many track and field athletes have also been spotted with purple polka skin.
Dr. Ayaaz Farhat, the co-director of the London Cupping Clinic, says: “The use of cupping therapy amongst athletes has grown over the last decade. Wang Qun, the then teenage Chinese swimmer being the most obvious in Beijing Olympics. Since then, Floyd Mayweather, Andy Murray, Amir Khan and more recently the Olympians in Rio have all been seen with cupping marks.
According to Ralph Reiff, a sports performance expert who has worked with more than 100 members of the current U.S. Olympic team, says: “It’s very much common in our practice. We’ve found it to be an effective alternative therapy to add to our toolkit of resources.’’