Cupping is an ancient therapy used to accelerate the physical recovery. However, little the world knew about this Chinese medicine until we saw gymnasts, swimmers and many athletes in Rio- including American gold medal winner Michael Phelps- with purplish circles in their bodies as a result of practicing cupping.
Cupping was thrown into the global spotlight when we wonder why Michael Phelps was covered with purplish circles on his back and shoulders when he won a gold medal in the 4 x100 meter freestyle relay and another on the 200m butterfly, in Rio. But Phelps is not the only one who has tried this therapy, other Olympic athletes such as American gymnast Alex Naddour and Belarus swimmer Pavel Sankovich have been seen with the characteristic cupping marks. Other celebrities have been photographed with purplish circles, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Justin Bieber, Victoria Beckham and others.
Now everybody wants to obtain the benefits of this amazing therapy, which provides pain relief. But if you think it’s a New Age health trend, you are mistaken, this practice has been described in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, the oldest medical textbook in the world, from 1550BC. In China, it has been a therapy for several centuries.
Cupping is an alternative form of pain relief through which a flexible cup is placed on the skin on sore muscles, and sucks the skin up into the cup. There is no scientific evidence that cupping is beneficial for health or if it causes any harm. It is closely related to the pillars of Chinese medicine, which is centered on the concept of “qi,” the vital force, representing energy and its manifestation on the human body. The health is related to balance and harmony, depending thus on the vital force. Cupping, according to the Chinese medicine, is believed to increase the flow of “qi” and the balance of the body.
However, this ancient Chinese technic is used mainly by athletes and people who push their bodies to perform on a regular basis, which results in aches and pains. The combination of cupping and Tuina are among the most common therapies that can provide pain relief for athletes after their extreme routines, according to Professor Lin Xun, a senior Chinese physician at the International Medical University’s Chinese Medicine Centre in Bukit Jalil. It is combined by many athletes with massages, saunas, and ice baths to help them recover faster after training sessions. However, top gymnastic teams are using cupping before competitions as well.
Cupping is useful for several conditions including muscle pain, arthritis, asthma and other breathing problems. But Professor Lin Xun said that for people who suffers from daily pains, it is necessary to consult with a certified Chinese physician, before using the therapy to get a proper diagnosis and correct treatment.
How is the cupping therapy made?
It is important to understand that cupping must be executed by professionals because it can bring damages to the skin and muscles if it is not. The first step is sanitation. The Professor explains that the practitioner must wash its hands thoroughly. Additionally, the patient must be comfortable and shouldn’t have a cold temperature. It should be provided with him/her support and a briefing of the purpose and procedure of the treatment.
The equipment must also be cleaned and sterilized. Certainly, the primary one used in cupping are the round glass cups. They come in different sizes. The selection of the cup depends on the patient itself. Larger cups are used for bigger-bodied patients with more resilient skin. Meanwhile, smaller cups are used for delicate skins and children. Some cups come with an air pump to increase the suction. The aim of the suction cup is to stretch and burst small capillary blood vessels causing bleeding into the area around muscles. This way the reddish/purplish circles are made on the skin.
The practitioner dips a piece of cotton into alcohol and lights it. The practitioner must keep the flame a safe distance away from the patient, warming the proper-sized cup. Then the cup is placed on the particular region of the body where the pain is felt, including shoulders, low back, arms, and legs. Due to that, there is not an exact number of cups to be used. It also depends on the needs of the patient.
What do the circles mean in cupping?
There are several cupping techniques. Dry cupping –which is the one described- last around 10 minutes. After the cups are removed the circular marks are visible, these are caused by the pressure created in the cups. According to the Professor, the marks help the physicians to measure and evaluate the condition of the patient. Lighter or reddish marks mean acute pain and they usually disappear within three or four days, while the dark purplish ones represent a more intense pain and are signs of stagnation of the blood. The last ones take around ten days to disappear.
Cupping aims to reduce the stagnation of the blood, allowing a better circulation. The stagnation means that the blood is not moving normally around that area. Some say that cupping is not 100% beneficial since it causes a slight damage to the skin, muscles and blood vessels. It is important to remember that it shouldn’t be made as a recreational activity; as well, Professor Lin Xun stressed that it shouldn’t be done by people at their housed or by an inexperienced person.