Think For Yourself: Cupping and our Olympic athlete Michael Phelps

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Why do so many Olympic athletes have those weird circular bruises all over them? IA critical thinker John Turnbull takes a look at the science behind cupping.

What is cupping?

‘Cupping is an ancient Chinese therapy in which a cup is applied to the skin and the pressure in the cup is reduced (either by heat or suction) in order to draw and hold skin and superficial muscles inside the cup.’ (Natural Therapy Pages)

The brown circles that you see on Michael Phelps and other (often American) Olympians is surface level bruising, as the negative pressure breaks capillaries under the surface of the skin. This is the result of the more commonly used "dry cupping", while "wet cupping" involves making small incisions in the skin during the cupping process.

Cupping has been around for thousands of years, with references to the practice in the Ebers Papyrus (c1500 BCE), one of the earliest known medical textbooks. Other health practices mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus include incantations for banishing demons and "doing nothing" to cure cancer. Solid advice, that.

What is Cupping Supposed to Do?

Claimed benefits of cupping include; enhancing circulation, treating blood disorders, relieving muscle pain and inflammation, curing chronic fatigue, treating arthritis, curing migraines, curing eczema and asthma, relieving depression and anxiety and removing toxins from your body.

While this is an impressive list of benefits for the equivalent of holding a vacuum cleaner against your skin, there is zero credible scientific evidence that cupping does anything at all.

So what does the Science say?

The fact that cupping is unregulated and pushed by Acupuncturists and Chiropractors should raise a red flag and the quality of studies done over the years does little to assuage concerns. Most of the studies listed on Google scholar are a low quality due to low sample size, poor research design and methodology and some transparently motivated reasoning by practitioner/researchers.

Former alternative medicine practitioner Edzard Ernst ran a review of systematic reviews of Cupping research and stated: 

Cupping may be effective for reducing pain. The evidence is insufficient for other indications. All SRs are based on primary studies with a high risk of bias. Therefore, considerable uncertainty remains about the therapeutic value of cupping.’ 

(Is Cupping an Effective Treatment? An Overview of Systematic Reviews, 2011)

So cupping might be good for pain relief. Or it might just be a placebo effect.

But Michael Phelps does it, and he’s won more gold medals than New Zealand …

While Michael Phelps is undoubtedly a once-in-a-generation athlete, this doesn’t necessarily make him an authority on medicine or human physiology. Athletes tend to be superstitious people (lucky socks, pre-match rituals) so there is the possibility that cupping gives Phelps a psychological advantage — if he thinks he has less toxins (whatever they are), maybe he’ll swim faster. Or maybe he would have swum faster either way, like he did all the times before he discovered cupping.

Other "performance boosters" with no evidence of efficacy used by Olympic-level athletes in recent years include Power Balance bands, copper bracelets, breathe-right strips and the still popular Kinesio tape, which purports to lift the skin away from the body, a scientifically implausible claim. It’s interesting to note that KT Tape is one of the major sponsors of the 2016 games, which doesn’t exactly encourage the participants to think critically about the product.

So it might work. What’s the Harm?

Most common side effects of cupping include bruising, burns and skin infections. Wet cupping can also lead to the transmission of blood-borne pathogens, particularly if the practitioner doesn’t subscribe to the germ theory of disease.

A number of Olympians have said that the process is painful, but the worst example of cupping going wrong was an unfortunate Norwegian man who received severe burns when the alcohol used for the cupping procedure caught fire.


While cupping is unlikely to cause you serious harm, there is no credible evidence that it does anything more for you than a light massage.

If you’re a professional athlete that needs every possibly psychological advantage to shave 1/100 of a second off your time, there may be some benefit to cupping, using KT tape, acupuncture, praying or wearing a lucky pair of socks.

Think for yourself.

Like what you read? John Turnbull''s books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. For about the price of a cup of coffee you can take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame, action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Check them out!

You can also follow John on Twitter @blackmagicjohn.

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