Friday, September 2, 2016

Michael Phelps Does Cupping For Recovery. Should You?

You've seen the tell tale signs all over his back and shoulders during the Rio Olympics. Strange, dark purplish circular marks were seen on Michael Phelp's body.

These are the marks after cupping is done. Cupping (thought to be an ancient Chinese recovery technique) is supposed to help recovery and increase mobility.

Glass cups are put on the skin to create suction (using either heat or air), pulling the skin slightly up and away from the underlying muscles. The suction usually lasts only a few minutes, it then causes the capillaries just beneath the skin's surface to rupture. This causes the obvious eye-catching bruises that you see.

The Chinese practitioners believe this can balance the flow of Qi (energy) and blood to wherever it is stagnant or deficient due to soft tissue imbalances from over training or traumatic injuries.

You can expect to feel some mild discomfort (from the tugging of the skin) but it's mostly relaxing once you get used to it. Your skin may feel a little sensitive afterwards. The cupping can be repeated again after the marks from the previous session have dissipated, which usually take a few days.

There's no doubt many athletes, coaches and trainers believe in cupping for recovery even if there isn't any clear and convincing evidence that it is better than myofascial release, massage, taping or using your pressure ball/ foam roller. 

Even my dad believes in cupping. I remember helping my dad do cupping on his back at home as a teenager. I had to put glass cups after using a lighter to set fire to a piece of cotton ball that he'd soaked with some Chinese herbs. I definitely had no knowledge of what it was back then.

If you're looking for scientific proof for cupping, a meta-analysis of 135 controlled trials suggest that more research is needed although there appears to be no negative effects.

The athletes may be feeling better because of a placebo effect. Still, a placebo effect can be beneficial at the Olympic level as Michael Phelps will attest.

My dad? He comes to our clinic for treatment when needed now.


H Cao, X Li and J Liu (2012). An Updated Review Of The Efficacy Of Cupping Therapy. PLos One. 7(2): e31793. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031793.

Rozenfeld E and Kalichman L (2016). New Is The Well-forgotten Old: The Use Of Dry Cupping In Musculoskeletal Medicine. J Bodywork Mvt Therapies. 20(1): 173-178. DOI: 10.1016/j.jbmt2015.11.009.

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