The 2016 Olympics in Rio have been finished and we’ve seen a lot of athletes sporting red circular welts on their backs, apparently from cupping therapy. So what really is this cupping thing and why are the most elite athletes of the world using it?

Cupping therapy is a form of alternative medicine and makes use of special cups to be put on the patient’s skin for a few minutes in order to create suction. A lot of people turn to cupping therapy for a variety of reasons: pain relief, help with inflammation problems, inducing better blood circulation, relaxation, and having a kind of a deep-tissue massage. The cups used may be made from silicone, bamboo, glass or earthenware.

This kind of therapy is sure at the top of the trends now, but again, this is an ancient practice that dates back to Chinese, Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures. When it comes to types, cupping comes in two forms: wet and dry.

On both cupping types, the therapist will place normally a flammable substance (usually alcohol, an herb, or paper) inside the cup and place it on fire. As the fire dwindles, the therapist will then place the cups upside down on the patient’s skin.

The air remaining inside the cups will create vacuum which causes the skin to rise. It will appear reddened as the blood vessels dilate. The cups are normally left in place for roughly three minutes prior to removal.

A more current or modern version of the cupping technique uses a rubber pump instead of the regular fire to create a vacuum in the cup. Other therapists even use silicone cups which allow them to move it from one place to another in the skin which can give the patient a massage-like effect.

With wet cupping, the therapist leaves the cups on for three minutes, and then uses a small scalpel to create minute cuts on the skin after. The therapist will then create a second suction and to draw out the small amount of blood.

During the first cupping session, a patient is likely to get about 3-5 cups. After the treatment, the patients will be given some topical antibiotics and bandages to ward off infection. The skin is set to return to normal within 10 days post-treatment.

People who are supporting this kind of therapy believe that wet cupping eliminates harmful substances from the body and thus promote healing afterwards. Unfortunately, this belief is somehow not proven as not a lot of research is being done about cupping therapy.

“Needle Cupping” is another variation of the treatment where the therapist first put acupuncture needles in the skin and then covers them up with the cups for suction.

So what does the research show exactly?

One research published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine back in 2015 have said that cupping can help in curing herpes, acne and aid in the management of acute and chronic pain. The British Cupping Society claimed that cupping can help treat the following:

  1. Anemia and haemophilia
  2. Arthritis and fibromyalgia
  3. Fertility and gynaecological disorders
  4. Acne and eczema
  5. Migraines
  6. High blood pressures
  7. Anxiety and depression
  8. Asthma and allergies
  9. Varicose veins

However, there are no significant researches to back all those claims up.

The side effects of cupping

Cupping is deemed fairly safe as long as you go to a trained therapist. Post-treatment side effects may include minor discomforts, burns, bruises and skin infection.

If you’re curious, it’s best to consult your primary doctor first and ask about cupping or any other alternative form of treatment that you may want to try. Also go to a trained cupping professional and ask about pertinent questions that you might have.

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