If you’ve followed the Olympics, you probably now know about cupping, the treatment behind the purple blotches covering Michael Phelps’ skin that has grabbed headlines. But what’s the science behind this 2,000-year-old Chinese medical tradition — and does it really live up to the hype?
Practitioners say it’s not just for Olympian gods and goddesses — those of us who spend our days at desks can benefit too, as can the ambitious athlete who is training hard for a body-busting event like a marathon.
“Whenever you have a breakdown of muscle tissue, [cupping] brings blood very quickly to the area, which helps to replenish muscle tissue and reduce inflammation. It gets things moving,” says Michael Forman, a doctor of Oriental medicine who practices cupping (and acupuncture) in Coral Gables. The title of DOM (sometimes DOAM, to include acupuncture) is one term used by practitioners of Eastern medicine.
Cupping involves using a small flame placed inside a cup to absorb the oxygen inside, creating a vacuum. The cup is placed on a person’s skin, pulling blood from the capillaries near the surface. The broken capillaries cause the bruise-like purple spots, but practitioners say that’s what brings the benefits: an increase in blood flow.
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“It’s a mechanism to speed recovery and improve the body’s natural processes,” says Michael L. Fox, a licensed acupuncturist who also provides cupping services in Los Angeles. “It moves [toxin] from where it’s stuck to where the body can flush it out.”
The toxins in this case can range from lactic acid (which causes sore muscles) to phlegm in the lungs resulting from asthma, smoking and other upper respiratory issues. This makes it useful for both the aspiring athlete training for a 26.2-mile test of strength and the chronic back-pain sufferer, Fox says. Practitioners caution that a person should receive an assessment from a professional to ensure they are a good candidate for the practice, rather than trying it at home, but that it should be safe for most.
The main exceptions? “Someone with a clotting issue,” Forman says. “And a hemophiliac would be out of the question.”
The regulation of cupping — and Eastern medicine in general — varies state to state. While cupping is often done by acupuncturists, it often does not require a license, Fox says.
By contrast, acupuncture does have more of an oversight mechanism in place. Many acupuncturists receive certification through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, which is a prerequisite in Florida (and in many other states) to receive an acupuncture license.
The titles used by practitioners can also vary. Forman, for instance, is a DOM, a title he received from Atlantic Institute of Oriental Medicine, which is licensed by Florida’s Commission for Independent Education. Fox is a LAc (licensed acupuncturist) with a Ph.D. in Oriental medicine (and before that, a degree in chemical engineering).
Both express a desire for more communication between Eastern and Western medical traditions.
“One of the main problems on all sides of the story is that there is such a poor interplay between the disciplines,” Forman says. He says if he sees a medical problem while doing a cupping procedure, he will immediately refer them as needed to a medical doctor, but that he doesn’t see the same kind of referral in the other direction. “This is a less-than-desirable level of understanding — and it results in bad patient care,” he says.
Fox adds that Western medicine practitioners have “appropriated” the idea of cupping from Chinese medicine tradition in a common tendonitis treatment.
“Western medicine might call it ‘myofascial decompression,’” he says — myofascial refers to muscles, and decompression refers to the mechanism by which the cup pulls up the skin using a vacuum. “They want to separate themselves from the deep tradition of Chinese medicine.”
But this difference in approaches does not have to be a deterrent, says Cynthia McGee Laportilla, a doctor of physical therapy at Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida.
“There is not an abundance of scientific evidence to prove cupping works, but there also is not an abundance of scientific evidence to disprove it works,” she says. “If a patient expresses interest in it, I’ll warn them about the potential for bruising and then refer them to an acupuncture physician.”
She says if it works for the patient and they don’t experience negative side effects, she doesn’t see why they can’t do it.
Laportilla says another popular option is kinesiology taping — another treatment with strong visual prominence at the Olympics, which consists of strategically placed tape on the body to support muscles and/or ligaments. Laportilla says the taping offers a range of benefits, including releasing tension on the skin’s receptors; helping to stretch or tighten fascia, the tissues surrounding a muscle; facilitating weak muscles and relaxing tense ones. Both cupping and taping improve blood circulation, their practitioners say.
The mix of media attention and positive reviews from practitioners outside the acupuncture world seems to be giving cupping a moment that may extend beyond the Olympics.
“I’ve gotten a few calls recently just for cupping,” says Forman, who says he usually only gets cold calls from people seeking acupuncture. “This is absolutely because of this [new] attention.”