Cupping has reached the Olympic heights of awesomeness! It’s one of my top Chinese medicine strategies for relieving muscular pain and tightness, and for treating and preventing respiratory illnesses. I’m so excited to see that Olympians are using cupping to reach peak performance! I include cupping into regular acupuncture sessions at no additional charge, or charge $40 per 20 minute stand-alone session. It’s also a great add-on to help loosen up your muscles before a massage. – Diana Horowitz, Licensed Acupuncturist at A New Spirit.
A number of Olympians – including the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, Michael Phelps – have been photographed with large red circles on their skin.
What are they, and why is everyone suddenly going dotty over them?
The mark of an Olympic athlete, at least at Rio 2016, seems to be a scattering of perfectly round bruises. Swimmers and gymnasts, particularly from Team USA, are among those seen sporting the mysterious dots.
No, not paintballing misadventures or love bites – they are the result of a practice known as “cupping”; an ancient therapy where heated cups are placed on the skin.
So how is ‘cupping’ done?
The technique, which is a form of acupuncture, is done by lighting flammable liquid in a glass cup.
Once the flame goes out, the drop in temperature creates suction which sticks the cups to the body.
The suction pulls the skin away from the body and promotes blood flow – and leaves those red spots, which typically last for three or four days.
Why are some Olympians using it?
Athletes say they are using it to ease aches and pains, and to help with recovery from the physical toil of constant training and competing.
There are plenty of other recovery techniques competitors use – including sports massage, sauna, ice baths and compression garments – but US gymnast Alex Naddour told USA Today that cupping was “better than any money I’ve spent on anything else”.
“That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy,” Naddour told the paper, adding that it had saved him from “a lot of pain”.
His team captain Chris Brooks added that many on the squad had started “do-it-yourself” cupping, with cups that can be suctioned with a pump rather than with a flame.
“You’re like, ‘OK, I’m sore here,'” said Brooks. “Throw a cup on, and your roommate will help you or you can do it yourself.”
The marks visible on Michael Phelps as he competed in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay on Sunday had people on social media speculating what they might be, with some guessing he might have been playing paintball or attacked by a giant octopus.
So what does it feel like?
There’s only one way to find that out – try it.
In the name of journalism, BBC News paid a visit to traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Jackie Long, in central London, who himself undergoes cupping once a week.
The main sensation is one of tightness, pressure and warmth where the cup is placed – slightly uncomfortable, but not painful.
The sight of the skin being sucked upwards in a dome into the glass may be a little alarming for a novice – but it looks much worse than it feels.
Once the cups are off – after about 10 minutes – the feeling of warmth remains for a while.
How did it start?
Cupping originated in China some 3,000 years ago, Mr Long says, but also became popular in Egypt, the Middle East and around the globe.
Before glass cups, cups made of bamboo were used to the same effect. The technique is known in Mandarin Chinese as “huo guan”, which means “fire cupping”, and is popular in China with older generations, he says.
— VOGUE.CO.UK (@BritishVogue) August 10, 2016
Chuck Bass turns on the Olympics, rolls his eyes, turns it off. “I was into cupping ages before Phelps heard of it.” pic.twitter.com/Xange4sKlw
— Modern Gossip Girl (@modern_gg) August 10, 2016
Crazy to see cupping at the Olympics! My mother used to do that to my dad all the time when he had the flu or something.
— Daniel Negreanu (@RealKidPoker) August 9, 2016
Last Olympics many of our athletes had kinesiology tape. These trials they have cupping bruises https://t.co/VvQQhUuKDp
— Colby Vorland (@nutsci) July 1, 2016