August 9, 2016
Cupping, an Eastern medicine technique from the 18th century, has been widely used in this year’s Summer Olympics, including by swimmer Michael Phelps. Cupping consists of applying negative pressure to skin to separate tissues and increase blood flow to the area. The technique leaves characteristically round bruises on the skin due to the rupture of capillaries during the process.
Cupping is becoming increasingly popular not only amongst Olympians, but also in the general population. Physical therapists, athletic trainers, and massage therapists provide cupping, along with other alternative medicine techniques (such as acupuncture and massage). A cupping device can even be found online for at-home-use (the safety of which is undetermined).
While cupping is popular, there is little scientific evidence it confers actual physiological benefit. According to studies, such as one study investigating the effect of cupping on knee arthritis, the benefits perceived after cupping— such as reduced swelling and increased healing rate— are likely due to the placebo effect. Further studies separating physiological and placebo effects are required to better understand the cupping technique.