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What is cupping?

We explain ‘cupping’ , the alternative therapy that’s sweeping Rio

Many of you tuning into the Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay this week might’ve been wondering why US swimmer Michael Phelps appeared to be covered in large, purple welts over his back and shoulders.

Far from being the sign of some illness or accident (Phelps went on to win his 19th Olympic medal in the race), the marks were in fact from an ancient form of therapy, called ‘cupping’.

Therapeutic cupping is believed to have originated thousands of years ago from Egypt and China. Since then, cupping, like acupuncture, has been used as part of other therapies, such as massage and Traditional Chinese Therapy.

The aim of cupping is to generate suction over a specific region, which is done by heating air inside the cups and placing them on the skin. They are left for up to 15 minutes to draw blood to the area. The idea is that bringing blood to the cupped area will speed up muscle and soft tissue recovery - but it also causes the startling bruises that can last for up to two weeks. Other perceived benefits include relaxation, boosting skin health and enhancing the immune system.

Phelps’ appearance has brought to light that an increasing number Olympic athletes are turning to more ‘alternative’ therapies to remedy their ills and try to give them that all important edge in competition.

Alex Naddour, US gymnast and another advocate of cupping explained that the treatment “provides relief from the soreness and pounding that come from gymnastics”. He told USA Today: “That's been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy. It's been better than any money I've spent on anything else.”

While Phelps and other members of Team USA are looking strong in Rio, there is controversy surrounding the therapy.  Primarily, despite being around for years it is still hard to discern how effective cupping  really is, with some experts branding it as ‘pseudo-science’. It also has the potential to cause side effects, such as pain, burns and skin infections.

Is this something you’d be willing to try? Have you had any experience of cupping? Let us know your thoughts... @220Triathlon 


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