'Cupping Therapy' Not Science Based, Yet Olympians Swear By It

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Following TV broadcasts seen throughout the world, it's now known that some Olympians are engaging in a recuperative practice that produces large purple welts on their bodies. Swimmers and gymnasts are in on the act, and they're saying that it's all about relieving pain in their sore muscles, brought on from rigorous training and competition.

Cupping Therapy, via Shutterstock Cupping Therapy, via Shutterstock


The procedure is known as "cupping therapy," where hot glasses or cups are placed over sore areas of the body. And while there is no scientific study proving its effectiveness, don't tell that to these pumped-up, polka-dotted performers, because to them the process is absolutely beneficial to their quest for Olympic gold.

"Our bodies are going to hurt after doing this for so long," said American gymnast Alex Naddour when discussing cupping, as quoted in USA Today. "It's the best thing I've ever had. It has saved me from a lot of pain."

The concept of cupping is that it creates suction, and proponents believe the process pulls the skin away from the body in order to enhance blood flow. And instead of undergoing a massage, where pressure is applied to the area of soreness, the athlete finds relief in the muscles and tendons being lifted, and as a result, loosened. For overworked muscles, the theory goes that it supposedly speeds up the healing process.

23-time Olympic Medalist, Michael Phelps 23-time Olympic Medalist, Michael Phelps, via Shutterstock


The cups don't need to be heated; suction can also be created by removing air with a small hand-held pump. Either way, many athletes – including 19-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, who sported circular welts on his shoulders Sunday during the U.S. team's gold-medal relay swim – are true believers.

What's worth noting is that they're believers despite the lack of science supporting this treatment, which is rooted in Chinese culture and dates back centuries. There have been a few studies conducted on this technique – one focusing on the neck pain of 61 patients; another involving 40 others plagued by arthritis of the knee – with neither definitely providing a science-based explanation for cupping's effectiveness.

In the absence of proof, the overriding belief is that there's a placebo effect taking place, and if the athlete believes he or she feels better, than that's all the proof they need.

One scholar, Leonid Kalichman, researching the connection between placebo effect and cupping therapy, told the New York Times that perception is certainly part of the equation. The paper writes: “'A placebo effect is present in all treatments, and I am sure that it is substantial in the case of cupping as well,' said Kalichman, a senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, who recently co-authored a commentary reviewing cupping research in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. 'A patient can feel the treatment and has marks after it, and this can contribute to a placebo effect.'”

And for better or worse, that pretty much sums up how Chris Brooks, the captain of the U.S. men's gymnastics team, views this pseudo-science as well.

"If there's something that's out there that somebody believes is going to be beneficial for my situation," said the 29-year-old, "I give it a shot and then we ran with what worked best for my body in particular."