Cupping at the 2016 Olympics: Does it really work?
Despite its increase in popularity among high-level athletes, there is currently no high-quality scientific evidence as to what cupping actually does.
With the Olympics underway in Rio de Janeiro this week, American viewers have been exposed to many sights never seen before. Take, for example, the purplish spots on athletes' bodies, most notably Michael Phelps and Alex Naddour. The casual observer may think that these marks are simply just bruises while others believe they are some new form of tattoo. But what viewers are really seeing is the effect of "cupping."
Cupping is a popular re-emergence of an old phenomenon, based in Chinese and Egyptian medicine dating back as far as 1550 BC. It was described to provide healing for many ailments. The technique includes the application of suction to body tissues to alter blood flow beneath the skin. Classically, a flammable substance such as herbs was burned and the heat was collected in cups, made of pottery or bamboo. These cups, with the trapped superheated air, were placed on the body at certain locations. As the gases cooled, a negative pressure developed and suction was created, which then pulled on the tissues below, dilating blood vessels, increasing blood flow to the area and improving "energy flows." The increase in blood flow results in a circular discoloration from the cups – which look like a bruise on the skin.
Now, the technique has been modernized. The method is referred to technically as myofascial decompression. The bamboo and pottery cups have been replaced with glass, and the suction once created by the flames and cooling gases has been replaced by a manual hand pump, which is connected to cups of various sizes. The suction can be applied to multiple locations on the body. Once applied, the cups can then be "stroked" along the course of a muscle and when combined with active body movements, it allows separation and movement between tissues for better blood flow. This increase in blood flow is thought to allow for better recovery and ultimately better performances.
While the overall idea may seem similar to that of a muscle massage – both are used in elite athletes for recovery – the two techniques differ. Cupping results in "negative" pressure applied to the muscles and tissue, whereas a massage involves applying a "positive" pressure to the tissues to stimulate blood flow.
Despite its increase in popularity among high-level athletes, there is currently no high-quality scientific evidence as to what cupping actually does. However it is being evaluated through multiple studies as to its effect and is even being used in non-athletes for conditions such as back pain and fibromyalgia. Needless to say, if use of cupping therapy gives an Olympian a competitive edge – either physically or mentally – we will continue to see more of these purplish circles in competition.
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