Cupping Therapy: The New Vogue Amongst Elite Athletes

Sam MacIntosh

Coach and Assistant Editorial Manager

Sports Psychology, Nutrition, Olympic Weightlifting


The athletically-inclined population worldwide have been glued to the coverage of this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro since Friday, and the fierce competition between the planet’s most passionate athletes has had us all enthralled. But there’s a puzzled question on many people’s lips: what exactly are those circular bruises on so many athletes’ bodies?


Cupping therapy is a form of alternative medicine.

In cupping therapies, suction cups are applied to increase blood flow. [Photo credit: Amy Selleck via Flickr CC-BY 2.0]



The answer is suction marks from cupping therapy. Cupping therapy is a form of alternative medicine in which cups made from glass, bamboo, or earthenware are placed on the skin to create suction. Supporters of the technique believe the suction of the cups mobilizes blood flow, promoting the healing of a broad range of medical ailments, including muscle soreness. Cupping therapy dates back to ancient Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures. According to many historical texts, the ancient Egyptians were using cupping therapy as early as 1,550 B.C.1



Empirical Treatment Reviews

But mere agedness does not a valid muscle therapy make. In a 2012 review published in the journal PLoS ONE, Australian and Chinese researchers looked at 135 studies on cupping therapy published between 1992 and 2010 and concluded that cupping therapy was only effective when combined with acupuncture or other relevant medications. A good deal of the research also only showed evidence in the treatment of conditions such as herpes zoster, acne, and facial paralysis – not muscle soreness.



With that said, there is some empirical evidence to support the technique. A 2012 study of 61 people with chronic neck pain compared cupping to a technique called progressive muscle relaxation, during which a patient deliberately tenses his muscles and then focuses on relaxing them. Both patient groups reported similar reductions in pain after 12 weeks of treatment, but the cupping patients scored higher on measurements of wellbeing and felt less pain when pressure was applied to the area.


Another experiment involving 40 patients who suffered from knee arthritis found that people who underwent cupping reported less pain after four months compared to a control group, but the cupped group knew they were being treated. This leads to inevitable speculation around a placebo effect. More studies were needed, in all cases.2


Popularity Amongst Elite Athletes

So why the sudden appearance of these marks on the athletes in Rio, most notably on Team USA’s swim team?


Anecdotally, the treatment has been found to be supremely effective. Michigan State University’s gymnastics team has seen incredible results with the technique, most notably with a member who suffers from compartment syndrome. The circulation issues of the individual caused her to be unable to participate in bars during her freshman and sophomore seasons, but the athlete has gone on to compete to an astonishing level on the bars in her junior year after experimenting with cupping techniques under the supervision of her trainer. Her teammates also report less muscle tension and soreness using cupping on a regular basis.3


In Rio, Team USA gymnast Alexander Naddour told USA Today: [It’s] the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy...[cupping] is better than any money I’ve spent on anything else."2


A Final Verdict?

As with other alternative athletic therapies, it's up to you to decide if it works or not. Empirical studies test measurable outcomes, but nothing does a treatment technique more credit than a trial limited to you, the athlete. For me, the body awareness of elite athletes is at such a level that their testimony alone is compelling.


And a placebo effect is still a positive. So there’s still a case for cupping to be the new vogue treatment for the perennial problem of athlete muscle soreness.

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