What is cupping? Controversial therapy grabs headlines in Rio

The marks on Michael Phelps's body? They're a result of cupping therapy, a controversial method for recovery.
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When Michael Phelps captured gold in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay, he became the most decorated Olympian of all time. However, he is also causing some commotion because of huge dark red circular marks on his right shoulder. The bruises are the result a trendy healing and recovery method for athletes: cupping therapy.

Cupping therapy treatment creates hyper-localized suction on an athlete’s body. The hope is to help mobilize blood flow, drawing more blood to over-used muscles to help relieve muscle pain and promote faster healing.

Phelps isn’t the only one using this technique. Team USA gymnast Alex Naddour and many others are also undergoing cupping.

There are two different forms of cupping therapy, heating and mechanical. Both forms hope to produce the same healing and therapeutic results. Using either an air pump or heat, the glass cups create suction between skin and the cup. Skin is then pulled away from muscles. This suction is what causes the visible circular marks.

From Michael Phelps to the NBA: Cupping bruises are popping up everywhere

Cupping therapy is normally preformed by an acupuncturist or a chiropractor using methods that date back to ancient Egypt and China, as early as 1550 B.C. The modern version uses medical-grade silicone cups that are most often left on for about 10 minutes. The therapy is not very painful, only causing some mild discomfort due to the tightening of the skin. Most of the bruising and marks disappear after four or five days, but they can last for up to three weeks.

But does cupping therapy really help athletes?

Anecdotally, athletes who use cupping therapy swear by the results. Naddour has been using cupping to help reduce pain for years. Phelps has utilized the therapy for the last year during his preparation for Rio.

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Proponents of cupping claim that it helps reduce muscle pain and inflammation, while helping relax the body. However, the science to back up these claims is not reliable. There have been multiple medical studies conducted regarding the validity of cupping therapy with no conclusive results.

Some doctors even believe that it is dangerous, especially when done without proper training—Naddour does the cupping himself, after having purchased a starter kit online.

Whether the science is there or not, Olympic athletes are using cupping therapy. But will this prove to be just another expensive body healing and recovery fad?

Over the last five years there have been a lot of sports medicine trends that lack medical veracity. Elastic Kinesio tape, which claims to help minimize pain and support muscles without limiting movement, was all the rage at London 2012. But there is still little hard evidence that it works.

We have also covered cryotherapy extensively in the last few years. Like cupping therapy, it has been used for years outside of the limelight. The validity of the medical science is not conclusive just yet, but many high profile athletes claim the results are real.

Although the science isn’t completely settled, it is clear that cupping therapy is in Rio to stay.