If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you may have noticed the circular bruises on the shoulders of swimmer Michael Phelps and other Olympians. And you may also remember when Gwyneth Paltrow showed up at an awards show with similarly circular suction marks on her back. These marks are the result of a form of Chinese Medicine known as cupping. So, what is cupping and why are celebrities and athletes alike giving it a try?
What Is Cupping?
Cupping has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 4,000 years, according to Robert Turner, a physical therapist, acupuncturist, and Oriental Medicine Specialist at the Spine Therapy Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
“Cupping is used to pull blood to the surface which moves chi (energy) and creates a healing response,” says Turner. “It can be used in combination with massage or acupuncture to stimulate blood flow and in turn, reduce pain.”
Cupping can be done in various ways, but generally speaking, during a session a practitioner will use suction cups placed on impacted areas to draw up the skin, open up the pores, and stimulate blood flow. This is thought to break up blockages and draw out toxins from the body. The glass cups are left on the skin for up to ten minutes, depending on the treatment.
“It reduces pain and inflammation and can help loosen muscles without the negative side effects of drugs or injections,” says Turner.
In some cupping treatments, practitioners moderate pressure with a pump and in other cases, they heat the glass cup by lighting a flammable material like a cotton ball inside the cup. Drawing out oxygen from the cup creates a vacuum. In other forms of cupping, a lubricant is placed on the body so that the cups can slide around on the skin's surface.
The Benefits of Cupping
In general, Turner says that cupping is good for circulation and cultivating the flow of stagnant energy in the body. By preventing stagnation, the treatment may have other benefits including:
- Reducing pain in stiff muscles
- Increasing the flow of lymph
- Increasing the flow of synovial fluid when placed on the joints
- Improving digestion when placed on organ areas
- Detoxifying circulatory systems
Does Cupping Actually Work?
Only a few small trials have been done on cupping. One of them appeared in the June 2013 issue of PLoS One. It was a small study that involved 61 participants all suffering from chronic neck pain. The study found that cupping was no more effective than progressive relaxation in reducing neck pain. Another small study published in the October 2012 issue of BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, followed 40 participants suffering from knee pain. Conversely, it found that cupping did relieve chronic knee pain in study participants.
Dr. Andy McMarlin, a specialist in sports medicine who served as a physician for the D.C. United soccer team and the Washington Nationals baseball team, says that while few clinical trials prove its effectiveness, some athletes may still find it helpful because it can help promote a speedier recovery.
Dr. McMarlin, (an Olympic competitor himself that holds two world records in rowing) says that when athletes mentally think that something is going to work, it can give them an extra recovery boost.
Chinese Medicine and Pain Management
Cupping, along with other Chinese Medicine treatments, have become increasingly popular for pain management in recent years. For patients like Michael Phelps, it may loosen muscles and reduce pain just enough to improve recovery time. A recent Organic Authority article followed the growing popularity of another form of Chinese medicine, acupuncture.
Brendan Kelly, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist at Jade Wellness in Burlington, Vermont, discussed that while pain meds may block or sedate pain in the body, they also stagnate energy, which can, in the end, worsen the problem.
That’s why pain patients end up needing bigger doses of pain medication, which can cause addiction. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number one cause of drug overdoses in the U.S. is opioids, specifically, prescription opioid painkillers which are prescribed for pain relief. With statistics like these, more and more patients are looking beyond Western medicine for treatment to avoid the side effects of pain meds and injections.
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Image of cupping via Shutterstock