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What's Cupping All About

michael phelps

Does Cupping Really Help Olympic Athletes?

A treatment doesn’t have to utilize the newest science to work.  Over the past couple days, you may have heard about the “cupping” therapy used by American swimmers Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin. 

There are lots of ancient as well as new treatments to aid in health and physical performance, and cupping therapy comes from ancient Chinese medicine.  It involves using suction to promote blood flow in a specific area using a glass cup, thus the term cupping.  It works by creating a vacuum that pulls and stretches the skin and connective tissue.  The body responds to the microscopic tissue tearing with local inflammation, which triggers an immune response. 

A quick review of the scientific literature shows that many doctors think cupping is ineffective.  However, in a recent scientific journal article, Dr. Leonid Kalichman suggested that in addition to the possibility of placebo effect, he believes the treatment has a real physiological effect as well. According to Dr. Kalichman, “it may be that cupping, by causing local inflammation, triggers an immune response.” The immune system response then stimulates cell regeneration and healing especially for chronic joint and muscle pain due to long term injuries.

Like many traditional therapies, there is little clinical research that statistically validates the treatment’s benefits.  But don’t worry – if there were an FDA approval for cupping, only professional athletes like Denver Bronco defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who touted the treatment a couple of years ago, could afford it!

There are a couple other factors to consider if you want to get the physiological benefits from cupping like our Olympic athletes.  First: although there is little clinical proof of cupping benefits, that doesn’t mean that you won’t feel better. Just make sure you have the treatment performed by someone who is experienced.  Secondly: you may also get some benefit from the “placebo effect.”  Even physicians that think cupping is pseudoscience agree that placebo effects can help you feel better.  Placebo effects are very well studied, and in the short term, can be very beneficial.  Especially for an elite athlete who has to compete frequently and needs to recover quickly from any injuries - or even someone who just has a kink in their neck.