Every four years the spotlight shines on the athletes of the Olympic games. With individuals participating from all corners of the globe, the games bring with them a wide range of approach and technique in multiple facets, including sports medicine. Whether it’s magnetic pulse therapy for downhill skiers or kinesio tape on beach volleyball players, each Olympics it seems like a new form of alternative treatment captures the attention of the viewers.
This year in Rio, cupping therapy is all the rage with Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps competing with the distinctive round bruises on their body. Cupping therapy is a form of treatment often utilized by acupuncturists and other therapists. Instead of needles, cups are placed onto the skin, often near pressure points. A vacuum is created inside the cup, lifting the skin and causing blood vessels to dilate. The suction can be created with heat or by a handheld or electric pump.
The theory behind cupping is that the process stimulates the healing process by increasing blood flow to the applied area. It also reportedly reduces tension within both the soft and connective tissue of the muscle, similar to a normal massage. The combination of the two is believed to provide the athletes with a reduction in pain and an improvement in flexibility. The unfortunate side effect of the technique is the circular bruises that Phelps and others are now wearing as a makeshift badge of distinction.
However the technique remains unproven. Multiple studies have suggested cupping could have the “potential” to alleviate pain though the efficacy of the process remains unknown. Many medical professionals attribute the success of cupping to the placebo effect, meaning the injured athlete’s apparent improvement should be attributed to a perceived effect rather than the procedure itself. Still a mental improvement can be beneficial to an athlete, especially for those in sports where a fraction of a second could be the difference between medaling and going home empty handed.
While the Rio Olympics have ignited cupping hysteria, the technique has been used for years in professional sports. However it hasn’t quite gained the same level of notoriety as the bruises can be hidden behind the uniforms or jerseys of most professional athletes, an option not available to swimmers or bikini-clad volleyball players.
Teams in Major League Baseball, including the New York Mets and Oakland Athletics, have been linked to cupping. Super Bowl Champion DeMarcus Ware has endorsed the technique’s benefits, as have other former NFL players including James Harrison and Chad Johnson. Cupping has even made its way to the NBA. In 2014, then-Trail Blazer Nicolas Batum and other teammates opted to try cupping when Chris Stackpole, the team’s Director of Health and Performance, introduced the technique. Cupping may have even played a small role in Golden State’s 2015 title run as several round bruises were visible on the left shoulder of Stephen Curry during the Finals.
While the effectiveness of cupping remains unverified, it appears to have found its footing amongst professional sports. With the success of Phelps and other Olympics athletes are currently having in Brazil, don’t be surprised to see that characteristic round bruise appear on other athletes in the near future.