I was chatting with my good friend Lou on Sunday night during the Olympic relay swim competition when he remarked that Michael Phelps appeared to have dark, round marks on his shoulders. I knew immediately that Michael Phelps has been using the ancient art of cupping!
Sure enough, the Internet was abuzz about the benefits of cupping for the Olympic American Swim Team. With many sites explaining the marks, including the New York Times with a post where Phelps talks about how he’s been helped by the process.
Cupping is one of the three main modalities used by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The practice involves placing special cups on the skin, then applying heat or an air pump to create suction. The suction draws blood to the affected area, reducing soreness and speeding the healing process.
As an Acupuncturist, I’ve been cupping patients since the very beginning of my practice in 2007. The technique can provide relief for muscle tightness and injuries on the calves, hamstrings, lower and upper back, and forearms. I’ve even used tiny cups on the ankles to relieve plantar fasciitis. I also treat patients recovering from pneumonia by cupping the upper back and chest, and others on the belly as a weight loss technique to enhance sluggish digestion.
Clearly, cupping can leave unsightly marks. Some of my patients are not bothered by this and enjoy showing them off at the gym or yoga class. Others are disturbed by the marks, and in those cases, I use ‘sliding cupping’ which only leaves behind a temporary redness that fades quickly and can be equally effective.
Critics claim that the treatment provides no more than a placebo effect, but this has not been the case in my office. I frequently see patients experience immediate pain relief, and at times cupping has been the only treatment – Eastern or Western – that HAS provided relief, short of a cortisone shot or surgery.
Knowing our athletes have embraced cupping made me wonder if the team is also using Acupuncture to enhance performance. A 2002 Japanese study measured the effects of acupuncture treatment administered on both the physical and mental well-being of female soccer players during periods of competition. The study concluded that acupuncture enhanced athletic performance by inhibiting cortisol and reducing muscle tension and fatigue.
Of course, you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to enjoy the benefits of either cupping or Acupuncture. You just have to give it a try.