If you’ve watched any of the captivating performances in Rio this past week, you might have found yourself feeling slightly concerned for some of the athletes. From swimmers to gymnasts, the backs of many competitors were decorated with large red circles.
No, there isn’t some weird disease going around. Those splotchy dots are intentional. It comes from an old Chinese medicine method called cupping, a form of myofascial release. “It’s different from massage or foam rolling in that instead of pressing and compressing, it’s decompressing and creating space,” explains acupuncturist Janet Lee, L.Ac., DACM. Cupping has been around for thousands of years and has become noticeably popular among athletes, even though the science behind the practice is the subject of some debate.
How Does Cupping Therapy Work?
There are a few different cupping methods, one of which involves pricking the skin to draw blood (this is known as “wet cupping”), but one of the most common techniques uses glass cups. Lee explains that a cotton ball soaked in alcohol is placed inside the glass cup and lit on fire. This removes the air and creates a vacuum. The cotton ball is then removed, and the cup is placed directly on the skin, where it lifts up the skin. This creates space between the skin and the fascia (the connective tissue encasing muscles), and is said to help boost blood flow and relieve muscle tension.
“When you have an injury there will be bleeding and edema (fluid that causes swelling) in the area,” Lee says. According to Lee, “The dark color on the skin is from the cupping lifting out some of that stagnant blood, cellular debris, and lymph that never cleared. In most cases, the cupping marks are just lightly red from superficial capillaries being broken, which is not dangerous or even painful.”
Does Cupping Therapy Work?
Although Olympic gold medalists swear by this ancient technique, not everyone is convinced that that it actually helps improve athletic performance. A 2012 review looked at 135 randomized controlled trials and found that the scientific evidence doesn’t support the efficacy of cupping for anything beyond shingles, acne, facial paralysis, and cervical spondylosis. Another review from 2011, which looked at fewer studies, came to the conclusion that cupping may be effective for reducing some pain conditions and shingles, but adds that there are still doubts that remain about this conclusion, and more testing should be done.
Is Cupping Therapy Safe?
Despite the need for more research, Lee says that most people who enjoy a massage can benefit from cupping, and she compares the sensation to getting a deep tissue or sports massage. Although cupping might not be extremely painful, there are some cautions you should take with this practice. “Sometimes you can get blisters, and a common thing with the glass cups is the edge can get hot and burn the skin,” Lee says. “You don’t want to do cupping when you have a fever or cold, if you have bleeding issues, and if you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t do it around your abdomen or back.
If you’re interesting in trying this kind of myofascial release, Lee says to be sure to go to a licensed practitioner. “Just like with a massage, you want to go to someone who knows what they are doing.”