Did you watch any of the swimming events during the Olympics last week? If you did, chances are you noticed Michael Phelps boasting cringe-worthy, perfectly circular purple bruises on his back and shoulders. Rest assured, those weren’t hickeys from a misguided baby elephant. In fact, those bruises are the aftermath of cupping, an alternative massage therapy used by athletes to speed up recovery times.
What is cupping?
Although this year’s Olympics might have been the first time many of us became aware of cupping, it’s actually been around since around 1500 BC, when ancient Chinese and Greek civilizations used it for internal disease and structural problems. In traditional Chinese medicine, cupping was used to break up stagnant blood in the body, which would improve qi flow (aka the life force flowing through your body) and treat respiratory diseases.
In cupping, a therapist creates suction on the skin by using a cup as a vacuum, separating the skin from the muscle. The cup stays in place for 5-15 minutes; some therapies may move the cup around on the affected area, using lotion or oil as lubrication on the skin. Think of cupping as the opposite of a massage, but with the same results: instead of pushing down into the muscles, you’re pulling the skin away from the muscles.
There are two main types of cupping: dry cupping, which uses plastic or glass cups topped with a vacuum-like mechanism to induce suction, or fire cupping, in which the therapist lights a flame inside a glass cup and quickly sets the cup on the skin, using the flame to remove oxygen and create suction. Neither of these types of cupping are particularly photogenic. You’ve been Google-image warned.
The benefits of cupping
The end goal of all cupping? Drive blood up to the surface of the area to improve blood flow, relax muscles, speed up recovery, and reduce soreness. And, in Michael Phelps’ case, an Olympic gold medal (or 23, as the case may be).
However, while this practice has clearly stood the test of time, and has been endorsed by both athletes and celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, there’s not a lot of scientific research to back it up.
So do I need it?
Well, probably not — unless there’s an Olympic athlete reading this that I’m unaware of. You may want it after especially intense training sessions (think your first Hardpressed back after a month or a 20-mile run). However, assuming you’re getting cupped by a licensed health professional with a good reputation, the risks are low — so, use your best judgment and go for it accordingly.
You can buy supplies to do cupping yourself at home with home cupping sets and the help of a good friend, following simple rules like avoiding areas where you can feel a pulse and sticking towards large, fleshy areas of the body. Or, if you’re in the Chicago area, plenty of chiropractors, acupuncturists, and massage therapists offer it as part of their practice. May your cup runneth over.
Stay tuned to see how our team handled cupping like Olympic champs.