2016 Summer Olympics: Michael Phelps’ Media Frenzy
The night following qualifications, Michael Phelps (an American gold medalist swimmer) was seen at the pool arena in Rio de Janiero prepping for his first Olympic swimming match with what appeared to be multiple purple circular markings on his upper body. Within minutes, social media went into a frenzy questioning those strange markings. Within 12 hours, the source beyond those circular marks was explained in one word, cupping. And although, Michael Phelps helped to create mass hysteria around cupping, its term and purpose have been around for thousands of years.
Cupping therapy is an alternative therapeutic method in which through suction, the skin is drawn into a cup by creating a vacuum in the cup placed on the skin over the targeted area. Cupping gained popularity around 1000 B.C. in China. However, there is reason to believe the practice dates from as early as 3000 B.C. as the Ebers Papyrus (written c. 1550 B.C.) referenced the Egyptians’ use of cupping.
There are different methods of cupping including dry/fire cupping, moving cupping and wet/bleeding cupping. During both types of cupping, the therapist will put a flammable substance such as alcohol, herbs or paper in a cup and set it on fire. As the fire goes out, the cup will be placed upside down on the skin. As the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum. This causes the skin to rise and redden as the blood vessels expand. A more modern version includes the use of a rubber pump instead of fire to create the vacuum. Sometimes therapists use silicone cups, which can be moved from place to place for a massage-like effect. Massage oil may be applied to create a better seal as well that allows the cups to glide over muscle groups in “moving” cupping. Wet cupping creates a mild suction by leaving a cup in place for approximately 3 minutes. The therapist then removes the cup and uses a small cupping scalpel to make a light, tiny cut on the skin. Following the cut, a second cup is placed on the area to create suction and draw out a small quantity of blood. Afterwards, antibiotic ointment and bandages are utilized to prevent infection.
While there is anecdotal evidence that cupping can be effective and safe, very few clinical studies involving humans have been conducted. Therefore, all of cupping’s health benefits are not necessarily proven. Regardless, practitioners and patients have reported benefits that include reductions in joint and muscle pain, promotion of relaxation with decreases in anxiety and depression, boosting of skin health, treatment of respiratory issues and colds, and improved digestion.
Cupping therapy can sound quite scary and almost painful. However, since its introduction thousands of years ago, it is considered a safe practice as safety standards and guidelines have improved and evolved with time. Most patients that have received cupping therapy describe feelings of warmth and tightness around the cup, but mainly they experienced relaxation and relief.