If you are like us, you are watching the Olympics and enjoying these superb athletes compete against each other. Then Michael Phelps comes on the screen and you wonder “WTH is wrong with his skin? He’s covered in purple/red splotches! Is that pepperoni or what?”
It’s called cupping and it’s been around for eons. It’s said to help relieve aches and pains, relieving those painful muscle knots.
We know what you are thinking, does this actually work? Is it safe? Is it cool or just plain crazy? We are going to tell you the facts so you can make up your own mind.
What Exactly Is Cupping and How is it Done?
There are two methods to cupping. The original, old fashioned method, developed thousands of years ago by the Chinese, is to heat the inside of a glass “cup” with the flame from a candle, then immediately put the cup on the skin. This draws the skin up inside the cup, heating it, and causing those red spots.
A newer method involves a tiny suction pump that is built into a special glass “cup”. The cup is placed on the desired spot, then the suction pump is used until the skin is drawn up into the cup. This is much more intense than the candle method and involves more intense bruising to the skin. This appears to be the method that is being used by most of the Olympic athletes.
Cupping isn’t new. It’s been around for centuries, but has recently gained the world’s attention because of the appeal that goes along with the idea that if professional athletes do it, it must be great, right?
Does it Actually Work or is This Just Woo?
This is the $64,000 question that doesn’t really have a definitive answer. While some scientific studies have found that it help with a few problems, such as herpes zoster, acne, and facial paralysis, other studies have found that it did nothing more than turn the skin red.
Ancient Chinese medicine didn’t actually use this as a means of muscle recovery, or even to relieve sore muscles, but to restore the flow of “qi”, which is something like the “life force” that flows through everything.
There are numerous types of cupping, with the most common method being called Dry Cupping, which is the type that the Olympic athletes appear to be using. Although repeated cupping effects over a long period of time have not yet been studied, at least in most cases, this practice appears to be safe.
The problem with testing the effects of cupping is that it is impossible to get a control group. In tests with substances, you can give people a sugar pill and they won’t know if they are receiving the real thing or not. With cupping, it’s impossible to tell someone they are getting cupping when they aren’t. So it is unknown how much of the “results” patients report are due to the placebo effect.
Athletes Love Woo
Most professional athletes are willing to try just about anything if they feel it will improve their performance. If you remember, at the London games of 2012, the rage was Kinesio tape. Most athletes wore blue or red tape over certain parts of their bodies, believing that it either helped muscles recover faster, or that it would prevent injury. After the games, the tape fell out of favor because it proved to do neither.
This will probably be the case with cupping, but if it returns to the 2020 games, it might be that cupping has some type of benefit!
There Can Be Dangers, However
While cupping, in general, appears to be safe, if not done properly, by skilled practitioners, it can be dangerous.
Cupping is designed to be a quick therapy. If left on too long, cupping has resulted in second degree burns and infections. In one case, a Chinese man, living in Australia, received third degree burns after repeated cupping treatments to cure his frozen shoulder.
While complaints are rare, they do happen. Never attempt to do this at home with friends and never allow someone who is not experienced to perform this on you.
The Bottom Line
While some studies show that cupping can work to improve some skin issues, such as acne or herpes zoster, there are no studies showing that cupping actually does anything at a deeper level. We need more studies done in this area before we can reach a definite conclusion.
If you have had cupping therapy, we would love to hear your experiences.