The Olympics & ‘Cupping’: What Does It Do?

chinese cupping treatment

Photo by China Photos/Getty Images

Eyebrows raised in Rio over the weekend when Olympic athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps started showing up with circular purple bruises on different parts of their bodies.

These bruises are caused by “cupping” — an ancient Chinese medical technique that may — or may not — stimulate muscles and increase blood flow, possibly relieving pain. The practice has become newly trendy among athletes and celebrities, experts said.

Cupping gets its name from special round cups that are placed on the skin over targeted muscle groups. These cups create suction against the skin, either by being heated or through use of an air pump.

The cosmetic result is apparent.

“When you put enough suction anywhere on the body, you get a bruise. You get that with a hickey,” said Dr. Brent Bauer, director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program in Rochester, Minn. “You’re basically rupturing some of the tiny blood vessels.”

Interest in cupping has grown since cupping marks started showing up on celebrities within the past couple of years, said Dr. Houman Danesh, director of integrative pain management at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

“People wear these revealing dresses, and you can see the cupping mark on their back,” Danesh said. Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Lena Dunham are among the celebrities who’ve sported the telltale round bruises.

Added Bauer: “It’s been around for a long time, and kind of comes and goes in waves of popularity, usually when someone famous mentions it. But this is the most interest I have ever seen generated about it.”

But does cupping actually help?

There’s an Eastern and a Western explanation for how this suction may help reduce pain, promote healing and improve flexibility, experts said.

Traditional Chinese medicine holds that cupping helps improve the flow of Chi, the life force that runs throughout the body, Danesh said.

“The idea is to put the cups around certain areas to release stagnant or blocked Chi,” Danesh said. “Imagine…