Rio 2016, athletes and the mysterious red spots on their bodies

The Olympics Games are well under way and along with plenty of record breakers, not so long ago, one thing has intrigued the public: the big red spots on the bodies of US swimmers and gymnasts. And no, it’s not from the questionably green pool water.

Thanks to the Olympics, people worldwide have discovered Asian “cupping”.

Athletes have brought back the ancient technique first used in China around 3,000 years ago, and which later became popular in Egypt and the Middle East. In ancient times, bamboo cups (instead of glass) were used and the therapy was called huo guan and sometimes involved blood-letting, by placing the cup over a small cut in the skin.

Fast forward to Rio 2016 and most of you probably instantly recognised the telltale signs of a recent cupping session.

And now thanks to Michael Phelps and his fellow Olympians, it’s just gotten a whole new following in the West.

For anyone not familiar with the practice, basically, cupping is a close relative of traditional acupuncture, consisting of lighting flammable material in a glass cup. The flame eats the oxygen in the cup creating a vacuum. Once that the flame goes out, the vacuum creates suction that sticks the cup to the body wherever it’s been placed. The red spots are due to the fact that the suction pulls the skin away from the body, promoting blood flow.

Now that we all understand what cupping is, there’s another important question: does cupping hurt? While most acupuncturists (and most aunties) claim cupping is not painful, some athletes that have tried it beg to disagree. If you don’t believe it, check out  the look on the face of Olympic Champion Michael Phelps during a cupping session – he was really not smiling. US swimmer Natalie Coughlin posted a picture while being treated with the caption “Laughing because it hurts so bad.” Anyway, as successful athletes know, “no pain, no gain”; that said, it’s ironic that the average heartland auntie probably has a higher pain threshold over a 30-minute cupping session than an Olympic champion.

Athletes at Rio are cupping mostly to ease aches and pains, but the therapy can also treat  blood diseases like anemia, along with varicose veins, migraines, arthritis, fibromyalgia, eczema and even acne.

Is it effective? Well, despite what your auntie may say, the jury’s still out. Numerous practitioners say that the therapy balances the ying and yang in the body. However, others like Prof. Edzard Ernst from the University of Exeter recently stated that cupping is safe, but there’s no evidence of its efficacy.

Whether cupping is beneficial or not, many US athletes and even celebrities (Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow among others) have long been using it, and after Rio, cupping’s fame looks like it will only grow. Currently, many athletes are using it in tandem with other remedies such as rigid- and kinetic taping.

Whether cupping is effective  or not is still to be proven, but it helped Michael Phelps to win his 20th Olympic gold medal so, why shouldn’t it work on mere humans too?