Cupping at the Olympics: Fishy Fad or a Therapy to Try?

MacArthurPeter H. MacArthur, MD, is board certified in sports medicine and family medicine and is a member of the Inova Medical Group. He has a special interest in the prevention and management of musculoskeletal and athletic injuries. Read Dr. MacArthur’s profile.

When swimmer Michael Phelps and his teammates took to the pool for their first races of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the whole world wondered: What in the world were those purple circles all over their backs?

The circle-shaped bruises are the hallmarks of a practice called cupping. Cupping has been used as part of traditional Chinese medicine since ancient times. But recently, it’s caught on as the latest trend among athletes looking to relieve sore muscles and gain a competitive edge.

So does the practice actually work? Here’s what we know about this therapy (and what we don’t).

shutterstock_78913069Therapy for Muscle Pain

Traditionally, cupping has involved burning a substance such as herbs or alcohol inside a small cup. The heated cups are then placed on the skin. As the air inside cools, the cups create suction against the skin. Today, some modern forms of cupping therapy use pumps instead of heat to create suction, but in either case, the result is the same: The skin is lifted and blood vessels expand.

In athletics, cupping therapy is used to treat sore muscles. The goal is to increase blood flow to the muscles and to separate the layers of muscle tissue to alleviate pain and promote healing and recovery.

Does It Work?

While there aren’t many strong evidence-based studies looking at the effectiveness of cupping therapy, there is some weak evidence that it helps with certain types of pain, such as the nerve pain associated with shingles. But when it comes to its use in sports medicine, we just don’t have the scientific evidence to say whether or not it works.

Still, I’ve spoken to physical therapists who say, anecdotally, their patients benefit from the therapy. And in general, it does seem to be safe for most patients.

I’d recommend avoiding cupping therapy if you’re pregnant, have a fever, rashes, bruising, skin wounds or have been diagnosed with a bleeding disorder. But what if you’re an otherwise healthy athlete interested in trying the latest sports medicine trend? It’s most likely safe to give it a try. That said, like any fad in sports medicine, I’d suggest approaching it with a healthy dose of skepticism.

At Inova, we help athletes at all ages and levels perform at their best. If you’re looking to up your game or move forward after injury, learn more about Inova Sports Medicine.


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