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Michael Phelps is red, white, and black and blue all over this Olympics thanks to a scientifically questionable technique known as cupping.

Phelps and other athletes are turning to cupping therapy in hopes of healing their sore muscles. It’s a procedure based in ancient medicine in which cups are placed on top of the skin. The cups create a vacuum, pulling up the skin in an effort to stimulate blood flow to the area. It leaves behind the hallmark round bruises, often deep red or purple, that several swimmers and gymnasts are sporting in Rio. 

So, does it work?


Scientifically speaking, the jury’s still out.

A single-blind study published in March tested how well cupping therapy worked to treat self-reported neck and shoulder pain. Half the 60 patients received cupping therapy, while the other half got no treatment at all. Patients who underwent cupping did report a significant improvement in pain compared to those who didn’t.


But that could have been the placebo effect: After all, they knew they were getting a treatment, while the control group knew nothing was being done to try to ease their aches.

Another study testing cupping as a treatment for 40 patients with knee arthritis turned up comparable results.

Thanks @arschmitty for my cupping today!!! #mpswim #mp ? @chasekalisz

A photo posted by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on

There are a smattering of similar, small studies that show cupping might help relieve pain and muscle fatigue, but those studies also don’t account for the potential of a placebo effect.

Then again, the placebo effect is powerful; simply believing that you’re getting effective treatment can help you feel better — and perhaps perform better.

And, anecdotally, athletes like Phelps say the procedure helps keep them at the top of their game.

The current hype over cupping actually started in Hollywood, with none other than Gwyneth Paltrow, who sported a backless dress at a red carpet event in 2004 that revealed cup marks dotted down her back. Cupping has since caught on both in the celebrity sphere and in sports medicine, with everyone from Jennifer Aniston to tennis great Andy Murray endorsing the practice.

  • Well, there is little scientific proof that a hell of a lot in Western Biomedicine works, and every week new proof that accepted phenomenon, like surgery for meniscus tear (see recent NY Times article), in fact don’t work at all and are a multimillion dollar sham industry.

    Having said that, the idea that the only way to “proove” something works is with double blind studies is moronic. For example, in Acupuncture, no two treatments are the same. Ever. Not on the same person two different days, let alone different people. So there is no way to design a double blind study to determine its efficacy for a specific injury or disease. You could do a longitudinal study, and you can also study the brain with fMRI during acupuncture. You could do a study to see if in fact acupuncture can turn breech babies. Oops! Been done. It does.

    There is a certain racial based arrogance on the part of Westerners when examining phenomenon from non-western cultures. Go live with indigenous folk deep in the Amazon who cannot read, if you could, and see if you can survive as they do and then tell me what intelligence is, and when they save your life from dysentery and fever with some kind of animal bile and crushed leaves then tell me we don’t know yet from science if it worked.

    • Stories told, in a sneering tone, about maintenance issues in the DC-9 are not evidence that your precious magic carpet actually flies.

      The sight of your magic carpet way overhead, reliably lifting passengers and freight on a continental scale, would evidence that your magic carpet actually flies. Until then, all you offer are fairy tales – told by the enthusiastic for the befuddlement of the gullible – that deserve much more laughter than trust.

      Like your ‘every case is different!’ smoke and sunshine. If your protocol doesn’t work then it doesn’t work – quit making lame excuses, get busy finding something that does work, or let go of your primitive superstitions and join us in the reality based world.

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