Cupping at the Olympics – what is it and why do athletes use it?

You may have noticed several Olympic athletes covered in bruises, including swimmer Michael Phelps and US gymnast Alex Naddour. No, these are not minor injuries obtained during training; they look oddly circular and are located symmetrically all over the body. In fact, they are self-inflicted marks caused by an ancient form of therapy called “cupping”.

Cupping has long existed in many cultures including China, ostensibly to stimulate the flow of energy in the body. In recent months, however, there has been a flurry of renewed interest in it. It seems that cupping is having a comeback, and one does not need to be a clairvoyant to predict that, after the Olympic games, cupping will become flavour of the month.

Essentially there are two types: dry and wet cupping. Dry cupping involves a warm cup being placed over the skin. As the air in the cup cools it creates a suction effect which draws in the skin as the cup is placed on it. The suction is usually strong enough to create a haematoma, a swelling of blood within the tissues that is much larger than a normal bruise. As the cup normally has a circular shape, the haematoma is circular as well. These are the strange marks we see on the Olympic athletes.

Wet and dry
Wet cupping involves causing a superficial injury to the skin and then applying a cup over the injured site. This procedure will draw a small amount of blood into the cup. Wet cupping is painful and carries a risk of infection. By contrast, dry cupping is harmless and almost painless – when done correctly.

When, about 40 years ago, I worked in a homeopathic hospital, we used dry cupping regularly. There are several techniques, but the method we used was simple: all you need is a small glass cup, some cotton wool and white spirit. You soak a bit of cotton wool in the white spirit, set it alight, place it in the glass cup and then swiftly place the cup on the patient’s skin. The fire stops instantly, and the change in temperature creates the desired suction. After a while, the effect recedes and the cup falls off by itself. This method is simple but I do not advise anyone to try it at home. If you make a mistake, you can burn yourself badly.

Don’t try this at home. Sherwin/EPA
Wet cupping is done in much the same way. Only one thing is different: one has to injure the skin before placing the cup over it, and this is what causes the pain. We used to do this with a little device that had multiple needles on it and looked like a miniature hedgehog; alternatively, we employed a scalpel to cut small, superficial incisions into the skin.

Naturally, all this does not matter to the Olympic athletes who obviously swear by cupping. They want to ease the pain of overexertion and, because of the doping regulations, they have to be careful with many types of medicines. So any drug-free method to alleviate their pain is more than welcome. And whether it works via a pronounced placebo effect, counter irritation or some mystical energy is the least of their worries.

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