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Are a stunning number of our Olympics athletes in horribly abusive relationships? That may be a question you’ve asked yourself while seeing men and women proudly showing off horrific bruises all over their bodies that don’t actually seem to relate to their sport of choice. But no, this is actually the result of “cupping,” an alternative medicine treatment that pops into the spotlight every time a new successful idiot falls for it.
Cupping is a practice related to acupuncture, but instead of little needles, practitioners use upturned cups (obviously), suctioning up bits of skin by either pumping air out of the cups or by heating the air inside the cups. The suction ends up leaving bruises wherever they’re used, which is both horrific and brilliant form a marketing perspective, because everyone watching the Olympics can clearly see that stars like Michael Phelps are cupping.
And Michael Phelps is a really great swimmer! So the cups must be doing something, right? I have a tiger-repelling rock, and you don’t see any tigers around here so it must be working, right?
Like most pseudosciences, practitioners claim that cupping can cure everything. Clearer skin, better muscle reaction time, fewer aches, less hypertension, whatever! But what does the science say?
There have been a few studies on cupping, but it may not surprise you to find out that the vast majority of it fails to include basic scientific principles like “control groups” or “double blinding”.
A few researchers, including Edzard Ernst, teamed up to do an overview of the research and they found that over the past several decades there’s been no evidence found for nearly all of the claims cupping enthusiasts have made. I say “nearly” because there may be a very tiny bit of evidence for one thing: pain relief. More research is needed to see if it’s true, though, because even the studies suggesting that weren’t particularly good.
What’s clear is that there’s no evidence, nor is there any known mechanism, for cupping making you a better swimmer, or gymnast, or annoying holier than thou celebrity. Wait, stet that: there is one known mechanism, and that’s in the idea thatbelieving you have an advantage may make you more confident, which may actually make you a better athlete. Of course, that only works if you continue to train as though you don’t have an advantage. If Michael Phelps replaced all his swim sessions with cupping sessions, he wouldn’t last long in the Olympics. But if he’s cupping when he would otherwise be watching TV or something, then sure: maybe that otherwise useless activity will give him the confidence he needs to win. Stranger things have happened.
But no, cupping won’t stimulate blood flow to his muscles, allowing him to swim harder or longer or faster or whatever practitioners claim. And the best proof for that, besides all the missing scientific data, is that if cupping really did that it would probably be in the same banned category as beta blockers and anti-inflammatory steroids.