Phelps, Olympic Gold and Cupping

Is cupping the secret to winning Olympic Gold?

Unless you have been living under a rock, you are surely aware that the XXXI Olympic games are currently being held in Rio de Jeneiro. There has been plenty of controversy: Russian athlete participation, accommodation conditions, stadiums finished in time, and lots more.

But over the last few days there has been a new discussion: what are all those hickeys on Michael Phelps’ shoulder? The answer is cupping. So what is cupping and does it work?

Cupping has been around for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine suggests that it helps open up channels of Qi. Athletes claim it aids healing, recovery, increases blood flood and reduces pain.

The practice involves very simple tools: plastic or glass cups and a vacuum pump. Cupping is a simple and painless technique that involves placing the cups over muscles, and then using the pump, a vacuum is created that draws blood to the surface, breaks capillaries, thus helping to increase blood flow to the area

A mechanical vacuum isn’t always needed; sometimes the cups are heated and then placed on the skin. As the cups cool, the air inside them contracts, forming the pressure needed to bring blood to the surface.

Cupping seems to be safe. But does it work?

Unlike many alternative therapies, cupping has been studied enough for meta-researchers to do several systematic reviews of the scientific evidence. To summarize the evidence here are the results.

“The current evidence is not sufficient to allow recommendation for clinical use of cupping therapy for the treatment of above diseases of any etiology in people of any age group. The long-term effect of cupping therapy is not known, but use of cupping is generally safe based on long term clinical use and reports from the reviewed clinical studies” (BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine)

“A red flag for a treatment like cupping should be that no one can explain how it is supposed to aid athletic performance. “The mechanism of cupping for pain remains largely unclear”

So does this mean you should not receive cupping therapy? No it does not. Another separate research (completed on marathon runners) has shown that when receiving the treatment, regardless if it is researched to be effective or not, will increase the likelihood of you being able to compete compared to those that did not receive any treatment. This study was only used on 28 athletes, so not the most in depth analysis, but there is some suggestion that treatment regardless of the research involved assists athlete performance.

The Olympics is a time when a lot of fad health trends tend to thrive. There’s no good data to prove cupping helps, but, likewise, there is no data to disprove it either. And meanwhile, you have a major athlete that has won Olympic gold.

So expect to see more of this practice around.

Trademark Therapy offers Cupping at both Docklands and Richmond clinics as part of our Sports Therapy and Myotherapy treatments.