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For Everyone Wondering WTH Cupping Is During The Olympics

August 9, 2016

Just in case you were wondering what those purple, circular bruises are on Michael Phelps.

If you were watching the Olympics this weekend and wondering what’s on Michael Phelps’ shoulder…

…and neck…

…and back, you are not alone!

There’s a lot of mystery around those circular bruises.

Michael Phelps

Clive Rose / Getty Images / Via Twitter: @mtwundagore

In fact, many of the athletes who use cupping to relieve their muscle tension aren’t sure how it works or what’s actually happening.

Michael Phelps

BuzzFeed / buzzfeed.com

When Nathan Adrian spoke to SwimSwam in 2014 about cupping he explained that it’s “a good alternative to massage to help loosen up some of your muscles” and that the practice was “definitely catching on” among other athletes at the time.

Still, Adrian found it hard to describe the practice, saying, “There’s more than one explanation for why it works. It’s kind of like an Eastern medicine thing, I think that’s where it originates.”

swimmer cupping

Tom Pennington / Getty Images

He continued, “I don’t know exactly what it is but I know it works for me. It leaves these weird bruises on your back and it looks like you got beat up or something. Everybody asks if it hurts, but it doesn’t. It’s much more of a queasy feeling because it’s like your skin is being pulled up — actually it IS that your skin is being pulled up off of your muscles. More than any kind of pain it’s more just a weird feeling.”

So what exactly *is* happening to the legs of Michael Phelps in that case?

Let’s dive in. Cupping is defined as a treatment modality in traditional Chinese medicine that stimulates acupuncture points for pain relief.


Andreypopov / Getty Images

The practice of cupping has been done in China for thousands of years and Eastern medicine suggests that it also relieves stagnation of Qi (vital energy or life force) and blood inside the body. It has similarities to what Acupuncture, Acupressure, Reiki, and other alternative healing modalities that seek to cleanse the chakras, meridians, and/or energy points along the body.

The cups are placed upon the body through various methods that effectively lift the top layer of skin and superficial muscle through the circular, suctioning cups.


Epoch Massage / Via epochmassage.com

Cups are left on the skin for an average of ten minutes and the practice is usually followed by a massage of some kind.

Olympic Gymnast Alexander Naddour told USA Today that cupping has “been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy. It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”

athlete cupping

Alex Livesey / Getty Images

He added, “Our bodies are going to hurt after doing this for so long. It’s the best thing that I’ve ever had. It has saved me from a lot of pain.”

And it’s not just athletes. Celebrities like Jennifer AnistonVictoria BeckhamJustin BieberGwyneth Paltrow, and Lena Dunham (below) have been flocking to the practice as well.

Even Jessica Simpson once tweeted the following:

jessica simpson

Jessica Simpson / Twitter: @JessicaSimpson

(What I wouldn’t give to know the visions Jessica sees inside her head!)

Between the celebrity love and some of the world’s greatest athletes singing its praises, cupping is here to stay… at least until the Olympics are over!

Michael Phelps

Adam Pretty / Getty Images

So What does the evidence or research show about cupping?  Well I hate to be the guy who gives bad news but it shows there is no evidence to support cupping as a reasonable solution to any muscle pain, muscle tightness, strength gains, flexibility or any other biomechanical change in the way our bodies move. Now there is a TON of scientific evidence to support the PLACIBO effect.  This is a real thing people. So with all this celebrity support and “Social proof” that is happening here I would chalk this one up to the placebo effect at its finest.  For real solution to your painful body you need to seek the help of experts who can look at your movement and address movement dysfunctions. If your muscles or joints hurt seek real evidence based medicine.  Not the Placebo Effect.

P.S. If you are having back pain and you want to find out if cupping can help your lower back pain or Sciatica we will be talking about this topic at our next FREE Lower Back Pain and Sciatica Workshop. Check it out by clicking here

Don’t Believe me...Here is the Science….

"We included 550 clinical studies in this review ... 78.1% of these [randomized clinical trials] were with high risk of bias," read one such review, published in a 2010 edition of BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Papers with high risk of bias either don’t blind the researchers to the treatment groups or have their methods compromised in another way.

The review also noted a big limitation to evaluating cupping: There’s no standard method to measure its effectiveness.

The review concluded:

The current evidence is not sufficient to allow recommendation for clinical use of cupping therapy for the treatment of above diseases of any etiology in people of any age group. The long-term effect of cupping therapy is not known, but use of cupping is generally safe based on long term clinical use and reports from the reviewed clinical studies.

Another 2012 review in PLOS One looked at 135 studies and also found "a lack of well-designed investigations." The PLOS One review did find some evidence that cupping works, but it was for specific applications like "herpes zoster [a.k.a. shingles], acne, facial paralysis, and cervical spondylosis [an age-related degradation of spinal disks in the neck]." Not exactly conditions that affect an athlete’s performance.

A red flag for a treatment like cupping should be that no one can explain exactly how it is supposed to aid athletic performance. "The mechanism of cupping for pain remains largely unclear," a 2015 systematic review of systematic reviews on cupping reports in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences. (A review of reviews is as meta as science gets.) If you can’t explain what’s going on, it’s hard to know what variables need to be closely studied.

It could be that cupping brings more blood to an area and this promotes healing. But that’s just a guess. Some say it helps relieve stress in the muscles by pulling them upward. Overall, "larger well-designed trials are needed to validate the therapeutic efficacy of cupping therapy," the 2015 review reads.

This is the space where a lot of fad health trends thrive: There’s no good data to prove cupping helps, but, likewise, there isn’t data to disprove it either. Meanwhile, you have celebrity endorsements to propel the fad forward.

There’s one way it could help, however: the placebo effect. (told ya)

Athletes are superstitious folk. If they try something once — like cupping, or wearing an "energy" bracelet, or what have you — and perform well, they may get scared about what will happen if they stop. Studies suggest that caving in to these superstitions can ease athletes’ minds and help them maintain confidence in their abilities.

And since cupping is probably harmless, that would not be the worst thing.


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