Can Cupping Help?

If Michael Phelps does it, should you? What you need to know about this ancient form of alternative medicine.

You may have noticed, along with the rest of the world watching the 2016 Rio Olympics, the strange dark circles on the back and shoulders of Michael Phelps and other athletes. Caused by cupping, a treatment that’s recently regained popularity, this form of medicine originates back thousands of years to ancient China, the Middle East, and Egypt.

How is cupping done and what does it hope to achieve? Does it really work? Keep reading to find out.

The suction pulls the tight muscles and stretches the fascia, the connective tissue around the muscles, and in effect, allows blood vessels to expand. The theory is that the increased blood flow speeds healing. It makes sense, but it is not going to cure any problem the athletes may have. – Michael Smith, M.D.

Suction Cups

Cupping is done by a trained therapist who usually uses cups made of clear glass so the skin can be seen through the cup, but earthenware, bamboo, or silicone cups are sometimes used as well. To perform “dry” cupping, a therapist places something flammable like paper, herbs, or alcohol in the cup and sets it on fire. When the fire goes out, the cup is placed rim-side down on your skin for about three minutes. Normally, no more than seven cups are used at once. The round, bruise-looking areas look painful, but they’re not, and they typically heal within a week and half. In the meantime, you may have mild discomfort, bruising, burning, and risk of infection.

During what’s called “wet” cupping, the same procedure is used, but after the cups are removed, the therapist makes tiny cuts on the skin. A second warm cup is then placed on the same area, drawing out blood. This theory is similar to the idea of “blood letting” that dates back hundreds of years. The purpose is to remove harmful toxins from the body in an effort to bring healing. After wet cupping, antibiotic ointment and a bandage are placed on the area to ward off infection.

A third type of cupping called “needle cupping” is performed by placing acupuncture needles in the skin and then putting the heated cups over them.

What’s the Point?

As the warm cup begins to cool on the skin, the air inside the cup creates a vacuum that sucks the skin, increasing blood flow to the affected area and stimulating the muscle. The practice is used to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, relax muscle, and help muscles recover from a strenuous workout, hence why Olympic athletes seek cupping treatment.

Other possible uses for cupping include treatment for arthritis, fibromyalgia, blood disorders, infertility, eczema, acne, migraines, the herpes zoster virus, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, varicose veins, and congestion from asthma and allergies.

More Research Needed

Even though cupping has been around for thousands of years, modern medicine believes more research is needed to prove its benefits. Few scientific studies have been done on cupping and therefore more evidence is needed to say for sure if it lives up to its claims. In the meantime, you are free to take people’s word for it. A practice that has stood the test of time must have some benefit, whether it’s a placebo effect or truly has some sort of healing capabilities. Your doctor may not recommend you fully rely on cupping to treat your condition, but may give approval as a way to supplement other types of healing.

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