RIO DE JANEIRO -- In every Olympics, story lines emerge that have not much to do with the sport. One such thing in that people will remember in Rio in 2016 is cupping. Athletes from Michael Phelps on down the line have appeared poolside or on the gymnastics floor sporting red, purple, or brown circles on their bodies from cupping therapy. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston have also sported these cupping circles on the red carpet. What is cupping, where did it come from and is it beneficial or dangerous?
Cupping therapy had been used thousands of years ago throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia and is still used in China by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and acupuncturists. The suction is created by using fire to warm the air in the cup where the particles spread out and then applying it to the skin for several minutes where the a vacuum is created when the air cools or by using a pump and physically pumping out the air. The theory used to be that stagnant body fluids could lead to disease and by applying a vacuum and sucking the skin into these cups, you can then slice the skin and release the toxic fluid. “Wet cupping” has largely been abandoned around the world and was written about by George Orwell in his 1946 essay “How the Poor Die”. “Dry cupping,” cupping without slicing the skin, gives a reverse massage to where the skin is pulled back into the cup rather than pushed down by the hands bringing increased blood flow. Olympians are placing their bodies under intense strain and they are limited in what types of medications they can use to treat pain. So trainers are using cupping in Olympians this year in an attempt to decrease pain from sore muscles and joints.
I can just imagine that after the Olympics are over people will be trying cupping on their own sore backs and shoulders. Is it effective and is it safe for general use?
Some people do report a sense of relief from localized aches and pains after cupping therapy but not everyone does. It really is not known if people are experiencing less pain due to the placebo effect or if it is truly speeding recovery and it is poorly studied. In terms of safety, a person from Hong Kong reportedly developed severe blisters on the skin that took a month to heal and another suffered significant burns when the cups were applied. There are many cases of people injuring their skin in Mainland China leading them to propose that therapy should be limited to experienced practitioners and that I agree with. If you are willing to accept that you are paying money for something that might not have any benefits, go see someone who has experience doing this at least until you know how to do it yourself and use cups that are designed for this purpose. Using cups not meant to withstand the pressures of a vacuum can shatter the cup and cut you. The experts say that people with problems clotting their blood like hemophiliacs and those on blood thinners should avoid therapy because you are actually breaking capillary beds and cause some mild bleeding under the skin. Therapy shouldn’t be applied on cut, damaged, frail, or inflamed skin, and should not be applied over a visible vein which could be damaged by the suction. Finally, it should not be used on pregnant women, children, those with high fevers, or in people with epilepsy.
Dr Michael White from the UConn School of Pharmacy