Michael Phelps might be taking the 2016 Olympic Games by storm–but it was the circles on his back, not around his neck, that have many talking.
The swimmer’s mysterious purple welts are the result of an ancient Chinese practice known as cupping.
With this technique, fire is used to quickly warm the inside of a small glass cup. The negative pressure created by the heat causes a suction effect when the cup comes in contact with skin. Those who practice cupping say once the skin is pulled up into the cup, it also draws up stagnated blood beneath it, relieving tension and pain.
Kiem Schutter, a Vancouver-based registered acupuncturist, said he performs the procedure on up to 30 clients per week.
“It’s not like taking a medication where you’re saying ‘hey, I’m going to wait and see if this works, maybe it should work tonight, or maybe tomorrow night or I hope to relax overnight.’ It happens right then,” he said.
Many, including Erica Kubanek, said cupping helped relieve pain in her neck and upper back.
“I sit at a desk a lot and I do have upper back and neck soreness. This is something that always helps,” Kubanek said.
However, when it comes to the effectiveness of cupping for relieving pain or even improving performance, the jury is still out. There is no conclusive scientific evidence proving or disproving its effectiveness.
Vancouver-based sports medicine expert Dr. Erik Yuill said more research is needed.
“The science is a little anecdotal at this point. There isn’t a whole of what we would call evidence-based medicine for cupping. Or research-based medicine,” he said. “Especially looking at it from what’s been in the news recently from an athletic standpoint. To improve athletic performance. It’s just not there yet.”
Despite the recent high-profile endorsement, Yuill said he’s still taking a wait-and-see approach. While he isn’t against the procedure, he said he hasn’t yet recommended any of the athletes he treats try it.