By Brianna Sachs
During the 2016 Rio Olympics, viewers’ eyes fixated on Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, as he snagged his 28th Olympic medal before retirement.
Spectators, however, were consumed with something more than just Phelps and his fellow athletes. They were captivated by the circular reddish-purple marks that draped some of the athletes’ skin, particularly Michael Phelps.
Those round welts, that had the appearance of bruises, are the result of a type of therapy called cupping.
Cupping is an ancient Chinese medicine practice that is used to treat pain, muscle stiffness and even respiratory issues. The practice has been predominantly used in Middle Eastern and Asian countries.
The therapy works by placing heated round suction cups onto sore parts of the body. These cups grip the skin and create suction to stimulate muscles and blood flow, as well as alleviating pain.
Alvaro Toledo, a Gainesville-based acupuncture physician, has been treating patients holistically for more than five years.
“I would say I do cupping on about 30% of my patients, or I suggest it to them for pain conditions, especially muscle pain,” Toledo said.
He said that most patients don’t come in exactly for cupping but says it’s something he recommends to them in conjunction with other alternative medicine techniques such as acupuncture.
Toledo said that some of the main injuries he’s sees cupping work well for are rotator cuff tears.
“The thing with rotator cuff injuries is when the rotator cuff gets swollen or inflamed, it restricts circulation and then the muscles become really tight,” he said. “With the cups, you can help stretch out the muscles and bring more blood flow to the area.”
Most of Toledo’s patients are between the ages of 30 and 50, though he says he sometimes treats students who are enrolled in advanced degree programs. Occasionally, he’ll see undergraduate students, many of whom are athletes.
The main side effects of the therapy are the bruises. Not every person gets the deep-colored marks, but rather ones lighter in color.
Toledo explained that it’s how exposed your muscles are that results in the difference in suction marks.
For example, athletes like swimmers tend to have a lot of muscle mass and not a lot of fat that covers their muscles, so their muscles are very exposed. Therefore, their marks are more prominent because there is more vasodilation, or widening of the blood vessels. In other words, there is more blood available to be pulled.
“That’s why athletes like Phelps tend to show more marks since their muscles are more exposed, and there is more blood available in their cases,” Toledo said.
University of Florida swimmer Melvin Nash says he has undergone cupping over 100 times.
“I chose to do it for injury prevention,” Nash said.
Regardless, the marks typically last for less than a week. Toledo said, however, that if a patient is on blood thinners, those medications have been shown to increase the healing time. That is if patients are on Aspirin or Omega-3’s, for example, they are more prone to bruising in general and it will take them longer to heal.
Nash said his bruising typically lasts for about a week, though the therapy does induce pain.
“A lot of the time, it does help with that I’m trying to treat,” Nash said.
Olympians aren’t the only ones taking part in the age-old therapy. Famous personalities including Jennifer Aniston, Victoria Beckham and Jessica Simpson have all been spotted with cupping marks on them, according to the Huffington Post.
Although both athletes and celebrities swear by this alternative treatment, many people are wondering whether there are proven benefits associated with the therapy.
According to a study by the National Institute of Health titled “Cupping for Treating Pain: A Systematic Review,” the experiments that were done don’t show any sufficient confirmation whether cupping really does help to alleviate pain. The study mentions how more rigorous studies need to be conducted before the effectiveness of the cupping therapy for the treatment of pain can be determined.
Additionally, a recent article published in Men’s Health states that, “there’s little research that proves that any healing actually takes place with cupping.”
I came across a study put out by the National Institute of Health titled “Acupuncture plus cupping for treating insomnia in college students.” 92 college students were split up into two groups, a treatment group and a control group. In short, the study concluded that the therapeutic effect in the treatment group was better than that in the control group. I asked Toledo what his thoughts were, and if he has used cupping in conjunction with acupuncture to treat insomnia.
“In my experience, I haven’t heard of using cupping for insomnia directly,” he said.
Toledo did say that some of his patients come in for treatment with migraines, and that usually comes with sleeping problems. They typically can’t sleep because of the pain.
“I haven’t personally treated insomnia directly via cupping, but I have been able to relieve insomnia by treating pain that keeps people from sleeping,” Toledo said.
Nash added that he, too, has never heard of cupping therapy to treat insomnia.
In the end, Toledo said that whether cupping truly helps his patients really depend on a person-to-person basis.
“Most people that are treated with cupping, and keep in mind that I do cupping in conjunction with other techniques, do benefit from it especially for recovery from pain.”