Athletes will do all sorts of things to assist their recovery. During the Rio Olympics, a couple of athletes, most notably US swim star Michael Phelps, have competed with curious circular bruises on their skin.
These have been caused by cupping – a technique that has its origins in Eastern medicine that purports to improve recovery by improving circulation.
But does it work? Or is it just another fad?
A 2012 study published in the journal PLoS ONE suggests that cupping therapy may be effective and not just a placebo. Australian and Chinese researchers reviewed 135 studies on cupping therapy published between 1992 and 2010 and concluded that cupping therapy may be effective when combined with other treatments like acupuncture or medications in treating various diseases and conditions.
Cupping works by placing cups, that might be made of glass, bamboo or earthenware, that are placed on the skin to create suction. It’s that suction that is supposed to aid circulation.
However, there are some critics of cupping who call it a pseudoscience.
It would seem that the cupping employed by Olympic athletes uses simple suction-based techniques. However, there is also a more extreme version called “wet cupping” where small incisions are made to the skin under the cup. This is a form of blood-letting and harks back to the origin of the technique, which some say comes from a more superstitious time.
Wet cupping is still practiced in some circles.
Another study, published in a 2010 edition of BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine looked at 550 clinical studies and concluded “78.1% of these [randomized clinical trials] were with high risk of bias,” read one such review.
In other words, science says the jury is out on the efficacy of cupping. That’s not to say it’s ineffective. But the reasons it may work are not really understood.