What is cupping: how those circles on Michael Phelps may be beneficial for you too

Like everyone else watching the Rio Olympic swimmers, I immediately noticed the purple circles on Michael Phelps. When my son asked what they were, my husband and I both responded that they’re from cupping. I didn’t realize that millions of others were asking the same question. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary, we’ve both had the treatment several times.

photo credit: Huffington Post

photo credit: Huffington Post

Apparently that isn’t the norm.

I suppose as a nationally certified massage therapist, and when you’ve spent over fifteen years in the industry, alternative medicine doesn’t seem so “alternative” anymore.

Yes, even my husband that thinks kombucha is weird, has had cupping treatments!

Though these Olympic Games were many people’s first introduction to the therapy, cupping was used by the ancient Egyptians.

Today there are several different techniques used, but the premise is to create a suction which draws toxins from tissue to improve circulation, decrease inflammation, and reduce tissue adhesions. My treatment utilized glass jars and a flame (no, my skin wasn’t burned) to create the vacuum seal. The discolored circles result from the suction and can last any where from a couple of days to over a week (*note: may result in having to buy a new dress for a formal event when you forget yours has an open back).

cupping 2Of course the $24,000 question is…does cupping hurt? Like most everything, it depends on the individual. Some find it relaxing, others experience some discomfort.  But you shouldn’t experience pain. Ever suction a straw to your lip? It’s a little like that only on a slightly larger scale.

That said, I had the treatment because I was experiencing fairly intense pain, so I didn’t notice discomfort from the cups. The marks were a little tender for about a day, but mostly you forget they’re even there until someone else asks “what the hell happened to you?!

Although cupping has become more common, finding a qualified practitioner is essential. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to find cupping therapy: search for Licensed Acupuncturist or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) therapists near you. ACE Massage Cupping also has a “search by area” practitioner list.

Would I choose cupping therapy over massage therapy? Not necessarily. While I find good results from acupuncture and cupping, I prefer the continual hands-on approach of massage therapy. However, acupuncture is sometimes covered through insurance more often than massage therapy.

Not quite ready to try it? An acupressure mat may alleviate pain without visible circles left behind.

If you do try cupping therapy, though, at least you can say you look like an Olympic athlete!

Michael Phelps photo credit
Cupping photo credit

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