Been wondering why a number of Olympians are sporting big red circles on their skin? The perfectly round spots aren’t souvenirs of an intense work out, an encounter with a giant squid, or an exceptionally interesting evening in Rio. They come from “cupping,” a 3,000-year-old healing therapy that utilizes heated cups which are placed on the skin to speed recovery from muscle aches and strains.
Among the most high-profile cuppers is Michael Phelps, whose shoulders were speckled with large deep purple spots during the relay team event. Phelps was recently shown getting a cupping treatment in a recent video for a sponsor. He also posted a photo on Instagram showing his Olympic swimming teammate Allison Schmitt placing cups along the back of his thighs, captioned “Thanks for my cupping today!”
How is Cupping Done?
Along with Phelps, many other swimmers and gymnasts in this year’s games are visibly excited about cupping, which is a form of acupuncture. Traditionally cupping is done by igniting a bit of flammable liquid in a glass or ceramic cup, waiting for the flame to go out, and then applying the cup to the skin. The heated cup creates suction, which pulls the skin into the cup and promotes increased blood flow.
The cups are removed after ten minutes or so, leaving a lingering sensation of warmth and those spots. Caused by blood being drawn to the surface of the skin and rupturing small capillaries, the spots typically last for four or five days.
Cupping is traditionally done with thick glass, ceramic or – originally, bamboo cups. More recently, glass and silicone cups – which create suction by way of a pump that removes air from inside the cups – have been produced, which can be less taxing to a cupping newbie than playing with fire.
Does it hurt? Depends on your sensitivity to pain, and where you’re placing the cups. Done right, you feel warmth/heat and a feeling of tightness as the skin is pulled into the cup. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s usually not painful. The somewhat alarming sight of skin being pulled rather dramatically into the cup definitely looks much more painful than it feels.
Does Cupping Work?
Cupping is offered at some health spas and has long been available from traditional Chinese health providers. Over the centuries, its popularity spread through the middle east, central and southern Europe and other locales. It is said to unblock and rebalance the body’s natural energy flow. Cupping has been credited with promoting healing from muscle strains, providing pain relief, easing arthritis, treating insomnia, helping with skin problems, assisting in detoxifying the body and boosting the immune system.
While many swear by the beneficial effects of cupping, some practitioners of western medicine note that cupping has not been studied in clinical trials and there is no proof that it is an effective treatment. About all they will admit is that cupping seems to be an effective placebo for pain and stress.
Pharmacologist Prof David Colquhoun, from University College London, dismissed cupping as “hocus pocus” and told the BBC: “It’s just pulling up a bit of skin, it is not going to affect the muscle to any noticeable extent.”
But Dr. Leonid Kalichman, a senior lecturer at BenGurion University of the Negev in Israel, who recently coauthored a commentary reviewing cupping research in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, told the New York Times that “the treatment has a real physiological effect as well. It may be that cupping, by causing local inflammation, triggers the immune system to produce cytokines, small proteins that enhance communication between cells and help to modulate the immune response.”
Cupping Risks and Cautions
If you are considering cupping, it’s probably best to seek treatment from an experienced practitioner, at least at first.
Doityourself cupping kits are available, and obviously virtually everyone has a cup or two in their kitchen. But you can’t use any old cup, and knowing how to heat the cups safely and then place them properly – for example, never over an artery, broken skin, or a part of the body where you can feel a pulse – is an important part of the treatment process. Do it wrong and you risk burns, shattered glass, severe bruising, and skin infections.
If you’re interested in cupping and other alternative therapies, you can easily find a dental plan that offers savings not only at the dentist but also on treatments like chiropractic care, massage and other wellness offerings. Find out more about dental savings plans at dentalplans.com, or by calling 1-800-238-5163.