Cupping: the alternative medicine Olympics?


It seems that every Olympics now generates interest in another alternative medical practice. At the 2012 London games, kinesio taping was all the rage; we saw numerous competing athletes covered in colourful patterns of tape.

Fast forward to the current Games and this week Michael Phelps of the USA was pictured winning his 19th gold medal with some rather spectacular round bruises covering his shoulders and back. Several gymnasts have been seen similarly adorned.

These round disc-like skin marks are essentially bruises caused by a therapy called "cupping". They are usually created by the application of a heated cup which then cools, creating a vacuum. The negative pressure "sucks" on the skin, breaking the small blood vessels (capillaries), and causes the bruised appearance as the ruptured vessels leak blood into the tissues of the skin. There are also modern methods of creating the cup's vacuum without the use of heat.

Cupping has been associated with ancient medical practice in Asian and European civilisations. Traditional Chinese medicine has used cupping as one method of stimulating acupuncture points.

Some believe that cupping can relieve pain, relieve muscle knots, help resolve scar tissue and improve blood flow. There are few risks associated with cupping, although without care the use of heat can cause burns to the skin. The efficacy of cupping is however completely unproven, there is no evidence of any positive effect for cupping in any medical condition.

Any benefit is almost certainly a result of the placebo effect: if an athlete believes a treatment will help them improve their performance they may well gain some benefit as a result.

It does make you wonder what less visible, non-evidence-based practices athletes are engaged in. Colourful tape and spectacular bruises are probably the tip of the alternative iceberg.

Paul Simpson has over 20 years' experience as a GP and GP educator. He has completed the Sports and Exercise Medicine Diploma (Bath), and is keen to promote exercise for health. He is interested in all forms of cycling and, as a runner, is a regular competitor in many Lakeland fell races.