The Latest Fitness and Recovery Trend: Cupping
The Olympics often draw attention to some unique story lines; in the case of Brazil there is green water, look-at-me hair styles, and giant spots have made headlines. While the quest for gold by the most recognized faces inclusive of Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt dominate front-page real estate, high profile athletes also draw additional attention around their actions. This year, the bruise marks all over Michael Phelps became a key search on google. The marks were caused by cupping, an ancient Chinese technique that uses suction to promote blood flow to the targeted area, but questions persist about the efficacy of the latest recovery trend.
In an article published in the Journal of Bodyweight Movement Therapy, cupping is reported to increase blood circulation, activate the immune system and stimulate mechanosensitive fibers. In theory, increased blood circulation and an activated immune system will improve waste clearance and recovery, while fiber stimulation will reduce pain. However these findings are not conclusive and practitioners and researchers both are calling for more investigative research on the topic.
Despite the lack of significant scientific research supporting the use of cupping, the appearance of the marks (hematomas) on Michael Phelps at the starting blocks is enough to generate interest. While it is yet to be seen if cupping has staying power, it would not be the first therapy fad to dominate professional and amateur sports due to Olympic amplification.
Kinesiology tape, or K-tape, has steadily grown in popularity and can be seen on a broad range of athletes from beach volleyball to wrestling and even on divers. With similar reported benefits to cupping, K-tape’s popularity soared within the last 5 years, as evidence by over 300 results for “kinesiology tape” on Google Scholar since 2012 compared to just over 100 results for the term between 2000 and 2011. While research on kinesiology taping has been equivocal for most reported benefits, athletes will continue to use it if they perceive a benefit.
With 28 Olympic medals, 23 of which are gold, it is tough to argue against Michael Phelps decision to use cupping in his regimen. But until further peer-reviewed research is published on cupping, the discussion over benefits will undoubtedly come down to anecdotal evidence, of which gold medal winners’ accomplishments tend to be relevant.