Why Are Olympians Cupping?

In ’08 it was Power Bracelets. In 2012 it was Kinesiotape. Now in 2016 it’s Cupping. At the heart of it all? The desire to achieve even the slightest edge over your competitor.

So, what is Cupping?

Cupping is an ancient practice in the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It has been employed for millennia for the purpose of increasing Qi flow through our bodies’ energy meridians, and thereby improving health or curing illness. Similar to the ancient practice of Bloodletting, the ancient practice of “wet-cupping” literally draws blood from the patient, and (fingers crossed) they get better. Nowadays, most people employ the practice of “dry-cupping” in which (in a nutshell) a glass vitrine is heated with a flame, creating a vacuum. The vitrine is placed on the surface of the skin, drawing it and the superficial fascia up into the cup, heating the tissue and breaking open all of its respective surface capillaries.

Although it’s an ancient practice, the 2016 Rio Olympics might be your first introduction to Cupping. If you are considering trying it out, be sure to proceed with caution (as you would with any medical treatment, both scientifically proven or not). Cupping can be intense, and isn’t indicated for everyone. Common side effects are swelling, bruising, and fever or flu-like symptoms, and welts that can last for weeks. These are all signs that your body is put into a mild state of shock, and therefore the decision to receive this treatment should not be taken lightly.

Always check with your physician, and make sure to tell your practitioner about any health issues you have or medications you take.

My own personal observation of the Olympic athletes that have cupping welts is that they appear to be on common sites for Myofascial Trigger Points. It is possible that breaking up the capillaries at the locus of a Trigger Point site might help to provide some pain relief. However, Trigger Point Therapy has a variety of approaches: Massage, Acupuncture, Acupressure, Stretch & Spray, Saline Injection, Ultrasound, and yes, now possibly Cupping. As a non-athlete, but as someone who relies on my body to be able to go to work every day, I’d pick the least invasive version, and I’d get on a plan so that I can maintain my quality of life both on and off the job. I’d pick Massage. In fact, that’s what I already do, and it works great for me.

A key ingredient in getting our muscles to relax is our own ability to rest and be in a relaxed state. If we are put in a state of defense or excitement, as in what happens with cupping, we are less likely to be calmed (in my opinion).

Treatments that are deemed holistic, complementary or alternative are subjective in nature. There are so many variables between the patient and the practitioner that account for efficacy, or the semblance thereof. What might help one patient greatly might not be as effective for the next. Many of these treatments are available outside of the realm of the hospital and insurance system, and therefore not all are regulated equally. Add to that, each state usually regulates each modality slightly differently too.

Therefore it comes down to us as individuals being responsible, proactive consumers of our own health and well-being.

With Cupping, the possible side-effects of discomfort, fatigue, and even the loss of productivity are things worth considering before going forward.

Oh yeah, so, why are 2016 Olympians cupping then? Like the Kinesiotape of 2012, it’s to hope for a slight advantage through the use of a visual signifier of a specialized and personalized system for performance. And that is all. There may be some pain relief, but no more than any other myofascial treatment, most of which do not leave a visible artifact.