Dear Dr. Crutchfield: I was watching the Olympics and noticed several athletes had purple circular marks on their skin. Michael Phelps was one of the athletes. I was told the marks resulted from a treatment called “cupping.” What is cupping?
Although very popular now, cupping is actually an ancient medical treatment popular in Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cultures. There are historical reports of cupping’s use as far back as 3,500 years ago.
How is cupping done?
Essentially, a suction cup is applied to the skin that that causes the surface capillaries in the skin to break, resulting in circular superficial “bruising.” The suction can come from either heat (the cup is heated and applied to the skin and as the cup cools the suction is produced) or from a mechanical suction mechanism.
The cup is usually applied for just a few minutes. Three to seven cups are applied to the target area. One or several treatments may be required. One or multiple treatments may be required. If more than one session is needed, the treatments are usually performed every other day.
Cups have been made of glass, ceramics, and even bamboo. There is a variation of cupping known as “wet cupping” where a small cut is made in the area where the cup is applied to draw out blood, via the suction. The goal here is to remove toxins. Although “wet cupping” is used, it is much less popular than standard cupping.
Most modern cups are manufactured as plastic or glass cups with attached suction bulbs, or just silicone bulbs that can be squeezed and applied to the skin. The bruise that results from cupping may be familiar to some, as it is the same mechanism that forms a purple mark commonly called a “hickey” by sucking on someone’s neck.
What does cupping do?
Cupping is reported to treat a plethora of medical ailments ranging from anxiety and depression to high blood pressure to acne to migraines. In sports, cupping is primarily used to prevent the damage of stressed muscles and injured soft tissue and speed their recovery.
Cupping is used today by many world-class athletes, trainers and coaches. In fact, many athletes swear by it, including Olympic champion Michael Phelps. Unfortunately, the exact mechanism of how cupping works is both poorly studied and poorly understood.
Experts at “Web M.D.” recommend that you talk with your doctor before you start cupping or any other type of alternative or complementary medicine. Web M.D. experts also recommend that you talk extensively with your cupping therapist before you try it. Ask such questions as:
- What conditions do you use cupping for?
- What is your training?
- What is your experience in using it?
- Am I already getting the standard treatments for my condition?
- Are there reasons I should not get cupping?
The bottom line is that cupping is an alternative medicine treatment currently in popular use by many successful amateur and professional athletes. If done by a skilled practitioner, it is considered to be very safe.
There is very little science to determine if the beneficial effect of cupping is a result of a true physiological effect or if the athletes are merely enjoying a strong-working placebo effect. Nevertheless, the results of cupping seem to be safe, healthful and favorable.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.