If you have watched the past Rio Olympics, you may have noticed several large, circular bruises on the arms and back of gold medalist, Michael Phelps. Your initial thought may be that those bruises were caused by Phelps intense training. However, what you are actually seeing are the effects of cupping therapy, an intentional form of ancient Chinese medicine now commonly used by athletes.
So firstly, how does it work? Most of the time an acupuncturist will soak a cotton ball in alcohol and light it on fire inside a glass cup. The flame is blown out and the cup is then put on the patient’s skin for about 3 minutes. This creates a vacuum like mechanism that draws up the skin, making it contract in order to increase blood flow to the particular area. According to Houman Danesh M.D, “Increased blood flow can be beneficial to jump start or restart a blunted healing response”. An inflammatory response is created by the body and as a result, more antibodies are produced in hopes to heal the area. Some believe that cupping can relieve pain, especially that relating to the back or neck. And many, including Phelps, turn to cupping to relieve the discomfort from sore, overworked muscles.
So does cupping therapy really work and is it actually beneficial? Several studies have been conducted on cupping therapy to prove/disprove its effects. However, while some do believe their pain is reduced after the therapy, it is difficult to conduct” blind” experiments which provide the most accurate results. Therefore, researchers do not have a means to distinguish actual results from the placebo effect. As physical therapists, we recommend this therapy as a second-line measure. If you do not believe traditional medicine is helping your problem, this technique may be worth a try. It is relatively painless and will only leave bruising for about a week so it is a safe alternative. However, if you have a bleeding disorder or other medical conditions, we recommend seeking your medical professional first. Your safety is most important!