To the surprise of everyone but fans of the Russian team, the most talked about secretive “medical” practice at the Summer Olympics in Rio is not doping … it’s cupping. First spotted (pun intended) on Michael Phelps, these mysterious perfectly round purplish circles are popping up on many more athletes. With purple polka dots everywhere but on his itsy bitsy teeny weeny non-polka-dotted suit, Phelps won yet another gold. Is this the new doping? How many will be needed to help any country defeat the U.S. men’s basketball team?
Cupping itself is nothing new. Using some sort of suction force on the skin to draw blood to the area was mention in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, the world’s oldest medical reference that dates back to around 1550 BC. It was also mentioned as a treatment by Hippocrates around 400 BC and there’s evidence it was used in China as early as 1000 BC.
There are two types of modern cupping. One involves placing a flammable substance like alcohol or paper under a pliable non-flammable cup and igniting it. As it burns, a vacuum is created, causing the suction, bruising and possible flaming hairs. In “wet” cupping, the purple area is then cut with a scalpel to release the pooled blood. The safer version used by the athletes relies on pumps to create the vacuum and no apparent bleeding.
With the popularity of other forms of alternative medicine (and the extensive testing for doing and drugs), athletes and their medical support teams have returned to cupping as a way to reduce muscle soreness and speed healing by drawing blood to the injured or stressed areas via brief suction that ruptures the capillaries and releases blood, which looks purple under the skin like other bruises that aren’t so healthy (yes, this is also the science behind hickeys).
Which begs the questions … does cupping work and is it safe?
A small study done in 2015 compared its benefits to that of massage therapy, while another small test in 2012 could draw no conclusions and suspected a placebo effect was occurring. Not that there’s anything wrong with placebos … psychological performance aids are just as beneficial and much easier to hide from drug tests.
One thing is certain. If athletes resorting to cupping win any more medals, you’ll be seeing a lot of bare skin covered with purple spots on your next trip to Walmart.