During his first two days of racing at the Rio Olympics, Michael Phelps has been seen with bruises all over his back. These are due to an alternative medicine practice called “Cupping therapy.” It’s believed to increase blood flow, helping to heal sore muscles.
Here’s a look at the controversial therapy.
1. Cupping Therapy’s Most Popular Technique Involves Lighting the Cups While They Are on a Patient’s Back
There is evidence that cupping therapy was used in Ancient Egypt, China and in the Middle East. According to WebMD, it is even mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, which dates to 1500 B.C.
The cups used in the therapy can be made of glass, bamboo or other materials. Cupping also usually involves lighting the cup on fire after it is placed on the patient’s back, according to Dr. Axe. The practitioner will light a cotton ball, soaked with rubbing alcohol, and put it into the cup long enough for it to catch fire.
The cups are then sealed off and take about 5-15 minutes to cool down. In the meantime, the cups contract and skin is pulled up into the cup. It’s believed that this is when blood flow gets better and heals the patient.
2. Phelps Featured Cupping Therapy in His Under Armour Commercial
In March 2016, as Phelps was gearing up for his return to the Olympics, he starred in an Under Armour ad called “Rule Yourself.” In it, he is seen briefly getting cupping therapy and a trainer lights up the cup.
In September 2015, Phelps even posted an Instagram photo, with swimmer Allison Schmidt smiling as she helped him with his cupping therapy. “Thanks @arschmitty for my cupping today,” he wrote.
The photo, seen below, makes it clear that cupping isn’t only done on the back. As SynergyStix.com notes, it can be performed anywhere on the body where there is enough skin to be pulled up into the cup. The site notes that the therapy can also be used for back pain, respiratory conditions, stress, depression and cellulite. It’s often combined with acupuncture.
Also, in addition to stationary cupping, a practitioner might also chose moving cupping, where they move the cup along the affected area.
3. Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow & Lena Dunham Have Used It, but David Arquette Called It ‘Creepy’
Cupping therapy has been a trend in Hollywood for the past few years. In 2013, E! News noted that Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Simpson and David Arquette use it.
Aniston was even seen with bruises on her back at the premiere for Wanderlust. Arquette didn’t like it, tweeting that it was “creepy” and called the bruises “giant hickeys.” Paltrow was seen with the marks at a 2004 film premiere.
Girls star Lena Dunham wasn’t afraid to admit that she used the therapy, posting a picture of her bruises on Instagram in March 2014.
4. A Chinese Study From 2012 Found That Cupping Might Work, but Only With Other Medications
A study by Chinese researchers that was published in the journal PLoS ONE in 2012 found that cupping might work, but it works better if it is combined with acupuncture or other medications. The study notes that it’s not known what kind of effect cupping has over a long period of time and called for more studies. The researchers in this study also cautioned that the review had a risk of bias, though.
The study reads:
Finally, our meta-analysis revealed that cupping therapy combined with other treatments, such as acupuncture or medications, showed significant benefit over other treatments alone in effecting a cure for herpes zoster, acne, facial paralysis, and cervical spondylosis. This appears to support the common practice in China of combining [Traditional Chinese Medicine] therapeutic modalities, either TCM with TCM, or TCM with routine western medicine, to enhance efficacy. The effect of cupping therapy over time is not known, but use of cupping is generally safe based on long-term clinical application and outcomes reported in the reviewed trials.
According to WebMD, other studies have found that cupping therapy can help with herpes zoster, acne, cervical spondylosis and facial paralysis.
Another 2012 study tested cupping to treat knee osteoarthritis. The patients who had the cupping therapy felt better, but this study – like the other one – called for more studies.
5. There’s a Petition to Get NBC to Stop Considering Cupping a ‘Valid Therapy’
Cupping therapy has been derided by many as useless, even if athletes use it. Brian Dunning of California even created a Change.org petition to get NBC to stop promoting it. The petition has 151 signatures.
Dunning calls cupping therapy “pseudoscience,” and he’s not alone in calling it useless.
“Cupping doesn’t make any sense at all,” David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, told The Daily Mail in 2013. “Bleeding was part of mainstream medicine in the 18th century, until they found out it was harmful rather than helpful.
“Putting a suction cup on the body may cause the skin to constrict and there could be some increased blood flow, but the idea that this could treat any medical condition is laughable. It’s utterly implausible and just another ingenious way of relieving the rich and gullible of their money.”
The skeptics haven’t stopped athletes from still using cupping. Gymnast Alex Naddour told USA Today that it is “the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy.”