Cupping: What You Need to Know About This Treatment Used By Olympians

Aside from the U.S. men’s swim team gold medal win in the 400 freestyle relay — a big win against top teams from France (the defending champs, who took silver), Russia and Australia (who took bronze) — there’s no doubt been some water cooler chit chat about the red circles that Michael Phelps and other Olympic athletes are sporting in Rio.

The circles are the results of cupping, a traditional Chinese medicine treatment that involves suctioning heated glass cups to the skin in order to stimulate the flow of energy. According to the Pacific College of Chinese Medicine, cupping “can loosen muscles, encourage blood flow, and sedate the nervous system (which makes it an excellent treatment for high blood pressure). Cupping is used to relieve back and neck pains, stiff muscles, anxiety, fatigue, migraines, rheumatism, and even cellulite.”

How exactly does it work? According to WebMD:

A flammable substance such as alcohol, herbs, or paper is placed in a cup and set on fire. As the fire goes out, the cup is placed upside down on the patient’s skin. As the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum. This causes the skin to rise and redden as blood vessels expand. The cup is generally left in place for five to 10 minutes. A more modern version of cupping uses a rubber pump to create the vacuum inside the cup. Sometimes practitioners use medical-grade silicone cups. These are pliable enough to be moved from place to place on the skin and produce a massage-like effect.

The bruised skin that follows and discomfort some experience during treatment may be enough to make you say “no way” to cupping, but Phelps and other athletes are advocates.

U.S. Olympic Gymnast Alex Naddour has said that cupping has been the “secret” to him staying healthy this year, noting: “It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”

A photo posted by Alex Naddour (@alex_naddour) on

Like with acupuncture and other Eastern remedies, the fees for receiving treatment can range from $30 and up, depending on the extent of the session and the training of the practitioner. Michael Phelps has, in the past, received treatments from his U.S. swim teammate Allison Schmitt (as pictured below).

A photo posted by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on

So, does it work? Several studies have found a link between cupping therapy and a noted reduction in pain, however what researchers agree needs further study is how much the benefits of cupping can be attributed to the placebo effect (where a patient experiences benefits from a treatment though it doesn’t have active, measurable ingredients meant to affect health).

While we may not have definitive proof that cupping helps to boost athletes’ energy levels or soothe their sore muscles, other research has shown that the placebo effect has a profound influence on patients. In one study, patients given a placebo caffeine pill reported higher levels of energy. In another, those given a placebo morphine treatment reported feeling less pain.

As this Business Insider article wrote about the placebo effect and athletic performance: “A psychological edge and the confidence that comes with it may be all someone needs to hurl a javelin further than their opponent or to spike that volleyball one final time.”

Think cupping may be for you? While the risks of cupping are reportedly minimal and many find the treatment soothing rather than painful, it’s best to consult with your doctor before trying out any new therapy.

Written by Genevieve Lill for Simplemost.


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