By Brenda Goodman
WebMD Health News
As Michael Phelps powered the U.S. men’s 4×100 relay to gold at the Olympics on Sunday, many noticed the big, purple spots dotting his right shoulder and back. Viewers took to social media to speculate: Maybe he fell asleep on his medals? Did he get Zika? None of the above. It turns out the spots are bruises created by a centuries-old traditional Chinese therapy called cupping, and it’s all the rage among elite athletes.
So what the heck is it? In cupping, a therapist places a glass cup over the area to be treated. A pump or heat is then used to create suction inside the cup. The suction pulls hard against the skin. It takes about five minutes to apply the cups, which sit on the skin for 15 to 20 minutes. Athletes who’ve tried it say it feels like a strong pinch.
Cupping has become a trendy therapy for athletes who want to improve their flexibility and range of motion. Many also swear that it helps their sore muscles recover after intense workouts.
Cupping creates suction, or negative pressure, which lifts the skin and other tissues. The exact way it might work isn’t clear, but therapists who use it with their clients believe the negative pressure improves blood flow to the area and speeds recovery.
There haven’t been many high-quality studies of cupping, however. One 2012 review of 135 randomized, controlled studies of cupping concluded it could be helpful for conditions ranging from back pain to shingles to acne, especially when combined with other treatments. But the study authors also cautioned readers against putting too much stock in the therapy since most of the studies didn’t rigorously test it.
For more information about cupping and how it’s used, WebMD talked to Ted Kaptchuk, a professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and Iman Majd, MD, doctor and medical acupuncturist at the University of Washington in Seattle.
WebMD: Where did cupping come from? Is it a new thing?
Kaptchuk: Cupping is a common practice that’s been used across the Europe, Middle East, China, Africa. It was once widely used in the U.S. by doctors until about 1931 when it passed out of favor.
WebMD: So it’s an old therapy that’s making a comeback with athletes?
Kaptchuk: Yes, via Chinese medicine. It’s interesting that athletes are doing it.
WebMD: How does it work?
Majd: I use a glass cup with a flame that creates suction. You can also use a little pump. It’s very interesting because it’s the opposite of how you do massage. With massage, you use pressure to push down. With cupping, we’re trying to pull the muscle up. You want to pull the fascia, the lining of the muscle, up as well, so we separate the fascia and soft tissue from the muscle so it can relax and move easily.
Kaptchuk: The vacuum causes a lot of blood to come into that area, and that presumably, affects the muscles and tissues underneath there. If you’re achy and you do it afterwards, you usually feel like you had a deep massage.
WebMD: Does it hurt? Those bruises sure look painful.
Majd: Not at all. What it does is pull the blood to the area. The more pain people have in one specific area of the body, the darker the color gets. As you continue to do cupping, then, the next time, there’s less and less color. After 4 or 5 sessions, I tell my patients, ‘Look, there’s no color change.’ It means the muscle is pretty relaxed. A lot of people say it feels really good.
WebMD: Do you think it’s valuable?
Kaptchuk: As a scientist, we don’t have evidence. As someone who has had it done, it feels good.
Majd: I do it on a daily basis for muscle pain. It’s one of my favorite techniques. Anytime you have muscle spasm, muscle tension, or pain, you can use it. It decreases pain, improves mobility, and also kind of improves the healing process.