The modern elite athlete is the product of genetics, top level coaching, years of hard training and cutting edge sports science. The most sucessful Olympic nations invest heavily in the latter but occasionally, even the greatest athletes in the world think that alternative practises (and in this case, I'm not talking about doping!) will give them an advantage!
One such alternative practise was very visible at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a number of athletes (including 18 time Olympic Champ Michael Phelps) appearing to have large round red circles on their backs. All of them had been the recipients of cupping therapy.
What on earth is cupping?
Cupping is an alternative medical treatment in which suction is created in local areas of by creating a vacuum in a cup placed on the skin. The vacuum is created by heating and cooling the air in the cup or by mechanical pumping.
The area of skin underneath the cup becomes red and slightly swollen for a period of time after treatment leaving the tell-tale red circular marks which last for a number of days.
Where does it come from?
It seems to be quite an old therapy dating back to perhaps 3000 BCE and has been documented in ancient middle eastern and Chinese culture.
What does it do?
In traditional Chinese medicine cupping is supposed to 'dispel stagnation of blood and lymph, thereby improving the flow of Qi (Chi)' and is used to treat respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, asthma and congestion; also arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders and certain types of pain. According to medicineNet.com 'Cupping improves overall health by removing the energy blockages that TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practitioners identify as barriers to the flow of healthy energy or qi.'
What does it really do?
Well first and foremost it causes the capillaries close to the surface of the skin to break causing the aforementioned red marks. It also makes you look like you've been attacked by a giant octopus! Apart from this the evidence would suggest cupping does nothing whatsoever. In the book 'Trick or Treatment' the authors Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst state that 'the only controlled trial of cupping did not demonstrate the effectiveness of the therapy in reducing pain.' and that because of the very visible results 'cupping is likely to generate an above average placebo response'
As with many alternative medical practises there doesn't seem to be any plausible mechanism by which it could work and with a complete lack of credible evidence practitioners resort to using vague and loose explanations as to its efficacy like the one mentioned above from medicineNet.com. Here's another good example from accupuncturetoday.com,
'Drawing up the skin is believed to open up the skin’s pores, which helps to stimulate the flow of blood, balances and realigns the flow of qi, breaks up obstructions and creates an avenue for toxins to be drawn out of the body.'
Let's quickly break this down and see if we can make sense of it:
'Drawing up the skin is believed to open up the skin’s pores, which helps to stimulate the flow of blood' Well it certainly draws blood to the area of the vacuum, so much so in fact that capillaries rupture!
'...balances and realigns the flow of qi' To know that chi is out of alignment you'd surely have to be able to measure it? As I'm sure you can guess it never has been, in fact chi has never been scientifically identified in any way shape or form.
Finally '...breaks up obstructions, and creates an avenue for toxins to be drawn out of the body.' Obstructions? What obstructions? Toxins? What toxins? and how are these obstructions and toxins drawn out of the body though the skin? All questions that are unanswered and will remain unanswered.
By now your woo detector should be in over drive. Cupping is totally and utterly nonsensical. The mechanisms by which it is supposed to work are implausible and there's no evidence for it's efficacy. So the next question is why on earth do some of the worlds greatest athletes under go this sham of a treatment?
That's a topic of another post ;-)
But to finish I need to award Cupping Therapy a Fitness Skeptic Score
Cupping gets an FSS of 0.0
It's total woo I'm afraid. Useless to man, woman, child and athlete alike.
Trick or Treatment- Alternative Medicine on Trial- Simon Singh and Professor Edzard Ernst.