By Ken Reed

Michael Phelps swears by it. So do many track and field athletes (including my daughter, who runs track at the college level), as well as several celebrities, including Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Chinese Cupping is an ancient practice in which cups are placed on the skin in a way that creates suction, pulling the skin into the cup. Proponents of cupping say that pulling the skin off the body increases blood flow, which relieves muscle and ligament pain. Other believers say cupping helps alleviate a variety of ailments and conditions, from acne to fibromyalgia.

After cupping, patients are left with one-to-two inch reddish-purple dots, which often look like circular bruises.

Cupping drew international interest during this year’s Rio Olympic games when stars such as Phelps were seen by millions of viewers with purple circles over their bodies. Phelps said he uses Chinese cupping to relieve sore muscles.

Here’s the question: Is there any scientific evidence that cupping really works?

According to WebMD, a report “published in 2015 in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, notes that it could help with acne, herpes zoster, and pain management.” But it’s also noted that many of the research studies to date could be biased and more studies are needed.

Steven Novella, M.D., writing for the website Science-Based Medicine, says Michael Phelps was a walking advertisement for pseudoscience at the Rio Games.

“The bottom line of all of this is that research into cupping is mostly negative or of poor quality and with high bias,” writes Novella.

“There is no good compelling evidence for any real physiological effect from cupping.”

Still, some athletes swear by it. This could be due to the phenomenon known as “the placebo effect.”

Cupping could give athletes a psychological boost, according to Dr. Robert Glatter, a physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and formerly a physician for the New York Jets.

If an athlete feels better mentally it could positively enhance his or her performance. And if getting what amounts to a large hickey helps an athlete win a race or achieve a personal best, many will do it. Especially since cupping is basically harmless. The cupping procedure can be a little painful and there’s a slight risk of infection but generally it’s a low-risk alternative treatment.

Alas, the problem with the placebo effect is that the benefit tends to gradually go away over time.

And when that happens, Chinese cupping will be tossed into the giant dumpster marked “Sports Snake Oil.”

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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