If you’ve been watching this year’s Olympic swimming races you must have noticed the large circular bruises covering American swimmer and the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps body. And you may even have wondered how on earth he got them. Well, the bruises come from an ancient health technique that he’s been using to encourage fast recovery. It’s called cupping.
It would seem that a practice known as cupping is all the rage in Rio at the moment. Not only is Phelps using it, but so are the rest of team USA! This has left many wondering why Olympic athletes are lining up to bruise their bodies. It turns out that it’s for their best health – no pain, no gain as the old saying goes.
Dr Thomas Jahn is a healthcare practitioner specializing in Chinese medicine. We spoke to him to learn more about cupping.
“It’s important to note that cupping is not a treatment which is unique to Chinese medicine. It’s actually been around for a couple of centuries in different cultures,” Dr Jahn explains.
Dr Jahn describes the process of cupping as follows
First the health care practitioner will put a flammable substance such as alcohol, herbs or paper in a small cup and set it on fire. Then as soon as the fire goes out they will place the cup upside down on your skin. The cooling of the air inside the cup creates a vacuum.
“There is a split second of time in which the practitioner must place the cup on the skin in order for the vacuum to take an effect. This vacuum creates a negative pressure. I can describe this pressure as the opposite of massage,” says Dr Jahn.
This causes the skin to elevate and redden in colour as your blood vessels expand.
“The displacement of stagnant lymphatic fluid and blood as a result of the negative pressure creates an opportunity for faster healing. This is because as it is displaced nutrient rich blood and new lymphatic fluid immediately replace the stagnant fluids and repair the muscles,” he explains.
Cupping is Optimal for Treating Muscle Strain
“Any athlete, regardless of whether they are professional, amateur or a weekend warrior, can experience muscle strain. This strain can also be described as tension. Physical tension offsets the joints. This causes the body to go out of alignment. This creates further issues or injuries as the body has to respond to gravity whilst out of alignment,” says Dr Jahn.
He explains that cupping assists with the release of muscle strain. This allows the body to go back into alignment which, in turn, facilitates free movement. As a result Michael Phelps performance will not be negated by poor recovery time in the form of extended muscle strain.
How Effective Is It?
“Cupping is effective because the movement of the blood and lymphatic fluids towards the surface of the skin makes it easier for the body to flush out toxins. When these fluids remain stagnant and further away from the skin (deeper into the tissue) it is harder for the toxins to be excreted,” Dr Jahn explains.
He adds that cupping is also an excellent alternative to acupuncture for people who are afraid of needles.
“However, I have found that the practice is more effective when used in conjunction with acupuncture. This can be either before, during, or after the use of cupping depending on the patient.”
What Are The Different Types of Cupping?
Dr Jahn outlines the different types of cupping:
- Wet or Dry Cupping: “It is important to distinguish between wet and dry cupping,” Dr Jahn says. Dry cupping simply involves the process already described. “Wet cupping is when the health practitioner will intentionally draw a little blood. It is, of course, vital that they follow correct hygiene practices such as using disinfectant and wearing gloves. They will then draw out the blood, using the vacuum, into the cup. The majority of cupping practice is dry, however, in intense or persistent cases wet cupping will be used,” he explains.
- Stationary Cupping: “This is a form where once the cup is placed on the skin it remains stationary. A number of cups will be placed on one area of the body, however, never on the face, head or directly over the heart,” he says.
- Moving Cupping: “In this form oil is applied to the area of concern, for example the back. It can almost be described as a negative pressure massage. Only a single cup will be used. Once the cup is placed on the skin it will be moved up and down the area in question,” Dr Jahn explains.
Why Is Phelps Bruised?
“Cupping always leaves some sort of mark. The darker the discolouration the greater the amount of toxicity that was released. It is not a cause for concern and, due to the negative impact of the vacuum, there is some debate around whether or not the marks can even be classified as bruising. At their darkest, the marks will take 1-2 weeks to heal. If they are pale, they should be gone within 2-3 days,” says Dr Jahn.
Cupping Assists With A Variety of Health Concerns
Dr Jahn explains that cupping is used for more than just muscle strain. It is also used to address respiratory conditions such as:
- colds and flu
- lingering coughs
“It is further used to treat menstrual pain and ensure digestive balance,” he notes.