Background[edit | edit source]

The star health fad of the 2016 Olympics was definitely cupping, in which a trainer attaches a glass or plastic bell to an athlete's skin by heating the cup or using a suction device. The idea is that the suction from the cup pulls blood to the surface of the skin, breaking capillaries. According to Brian Resnick at Vox, practitioners believe that it helps in recovery and reduces pain. Template:Chinese medicine practitioners believe it opens up qi channels.

But the scientific studies don't back up the claims. Resnick points out that several meta studies on cupping, including one in 2015, found little evidence that cupping did anything for the human body, except provide a strong placebo effect. “It’s all speculation,” Dr. David Shurtleff, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health tells Jeremy Samuel Faust at Slate, pointing out that nothing in the literature explains why the technique would work.

Cupping for Swimmers[edit | edit source]

by Jamie Frankenfield

In 2004, 1500m champion Grant Hackett sparked concern when he showed up at the Olympics with red welts across his back,, More recently, Natalie Coughlin and Nathan Adrian have both sported circular blotches caused by a recovery method called cupping.

Cupping is nothing new in sports. The ancient modality promises pain relief, increased blood flow, and healing. Swimmers are especially fond of cupping therapies, but are the hickey-like bruises on the backs of swimmers worth it?

What is Cupping?

Cupping is an ancient Chinese modality outside of the traditional form of Western healthcare and approach to pain and healing. According to the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, cupping is a traditional Chinese medicine that uses small glass jars or bamboo jars on the skin.

The jars are placed on problem areas. For swimmers, these areas are often the shoulders and the back to relieve shoulder pain and muscle soreness. Once the jars are in place, the therapist creates suction. The therapist applies an oil to the skin. Before placing the jar on the skin, the therapist quickly heats the inside of the cup to remove the oxygen from the cup for optimal suction. The fire is never near the athlete’s skin.

Another method to increase suction is to use a suction pump. The cup is placed on the end of the tool, and when it is applied to the skin, the therapist pumps the gun to increase suction.

When the jar is placed on the skin, the skin sucks up into the cup. It feels like someone is pinching your skin. The therapist applies multiple cups – usually 5 to 6 – to the body. The therapist will either leave the cups on the skin or slide them across the skin. Sliding the cups across the skin pulls the muscles and mimics a deep tissue massage.

The therapist looks for areas on the skin where redness is darker. The darker the skin, the more blood flow to the area. The therapist might choose to concentrate the cups on this area. The cups remain on the skin for about 5 minutes. When they are removed, the red bruising appears.

Side effects of Cupping?[edit | edit source]

The largest side effect is the presence of the large, circular bruises on the skin. While the bruises may be uncomfortable at times and linger for a few days, cupping is harmless when done properly by a licensed or skilled professional. In addition to bruising and redness, cupping can cause mild discomfort, and in rare cases, burns and infection. Again, it is important for qualified therapists to complete the treatment.

Does Cupping Work?

That is the question, right? Does it really work or do swimmers experience the placebo effect? Cupping uses the method of decompression instead of traditional compression methods for recovery, such as massage and other compression therapies.

It is important to note that the benefits of cupping for swimmers have yet to be studied – most evidence is largely anecdotal and bias – but therapists and athletes do report the following benefits:

  • Reduced inflammation
  • Improved blood flow
  • Relief from tight muscles and trigger points
  • Improved flow of lymphatic system
  • Pain relief
  • Stress relief
  • Improved muscle flexibility

In May 2016, a published Turkish pilot study (Arslan et al) revealed the mean pain scores for neck and upper shoulder pain decreased after cupping therapies. Results of the pilot study stated that cupping may provide potential therapeutic relief from neck and shoulder pain not associated with specific injuries or ailments; however, the researchers acknowledge the need for full-scale trials to gain firm evidence about the effectiveness of the cupping treatment.

For now, cupping appears to be a complementary technique for relief and recovery.

Should Swimmers Use Cupping for Recovery?

It can’t hurt. Cupping, when done properly, should not hurt or cause any significant concerns. Bruising is normal, but aside from that, cupping can’t hurt. It is important, for swimmers and other athletes to stick to their prescribed training and recovery plans. Use cupping only as a supplemental modality for relief and recovery.

As with any other modality, it is important for athletes to stay hydrated, to express any concerns or pain, and to inform the trainer and/or coach about alternative treatment methods. More studies are necessary to understand the effectiveness of cupping, but if the trainer and swimmer feel it helps, then it won’t hurt to continue supervised treatment.

Compared to other soft tissue methods, there is no evidence cupping is more effective than a myofascial release or any soft tissue methods with tools. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, it just means the research doesn’t support it over other therapies. Many studies and practitioners recommend cupping as a complementary therapy, not the main therapy for rehabilitation and recovery.

References:[edit | edit source]

Arslan, M., Gökgöz, N., & Dane, Ş. (2016). The effect of traditional wet cupping on shoulder pain and neck pain: A pilot study. Complementary Therapies In Clinical Practice, 2330-33. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2016.02.003

British Cupping Society: "A Brief Overview of Cupping Therapy," "Al-Hijamah Cupping Therapy."

Cao, J. PLoS ONE, February 2012; vol 7: pp 1-14.

Mehta, P., & Dhapte, V. (2015). Review article: Cupping therapy: A prudent remedy for a plethora of medical ailments. Journal Of Traditional And Complementary Medicine, 5127-134. doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2014.11.036 NICOLE, J. (2004, August 11). Swimmers sucked in by ancient therapies. Hobart Mercury (Australia). p. 050

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