Three of my kids swim competitively, and I can trace their interest in the sport back to when they were little kids watching Michael Phelps win gold in the 2008 Olympics. It is no surprise, then, that when we were watching Phelps win his first Rio gold medal at the 2016 Olympics, we wondered about the strange circles on his back and shoulders.
We soon learned about the ancient healing technique of cupping. Cupping, which dates back more than 2,000 years, is a form of massage therapy that has been used mostly in Middle Eastern and Asian countries, particularly China. The Greek doctor Hippocrates, known as the “Father of Modern Medicine,” recommended cupping in his guide to clinical treatment.
Today, the ancient practice has gained new popularity thanks to our Olympic team in Rio, especially Team USA swimmers and gymnasts.
The therapy involves the placement of warmed round suction cups on sore parts of the body for five to 10 minutes. The glass or plastic cups create a partial vacuum, which works to stimulate muscles and increase blood flow. The cups also may work to reduce pain, as they pull up aching muscles.
The distinctive circular red marks, which fade way in a few days to a week, show that blood flow has increased in the affected area, practitioners say. Many therapists also recommend cupping as a way of releasing toxins from the body and of stimulating the flow of fresh lymph to a painful area. Additionally, cupping has been used to help relieve cold and flu symptoms.
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There are many different cupping techniques, including dry cupping and wet cupping, but most therapists today use sterilized cups that are steamed under pressure and then heated to temperatures of more than 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Athletes aren’t the only ones using cupping. Actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston have tried it, as have singers Chris Martin and Jessica Simpson.
“There is no scientific rationale for expecting any health benefit from cupping,” the American Cancer Society reported in a statement on Aug. 8.
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However, after learning that Phelps, who has won more gold medals than any other athlete, uses the therapy, many Americans don’t seem to care about scientific evidence.
The International Cupping Therapy Association reported a 20 percent increase in purchases of cupping therapy equipment and a 50 percent increase of health practitioners wanting information on how to be certified in cupping certificates in just three days after Phelps’ debut race in Rio.
Many Internet sites sell cupping sets, including Amazon, which offers a few sets beginning at $21, and eBay, which has some sets selling for as low as only a few dollars.
Please note that people who bleed easily or who have skin ulcers or edema should avoid cupping. Pregnant women should talk with their health practitioner before trying cupping.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or cure any particular health condition. Please consult with a qualified health professional to determine which treatments are right for you and any individual health condition(s) that you may have.