Michael Phelps & Cupping Therapy

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is a man of firsts. Among them is his role in raising Western awareness of cupping therapy. The patch of bright red circles on his shoulder, the telltale sign that cupping therapy has been administered, were one of the great curiosities sparked by the Rio Olympics, causing many a Western reporter to scramble for an explanation.

Having undergone cupping therapy while living in China and being married to a trained cupping therapist, I read and listened to many of these explanations. And while I found none to be untruthful, none got it completely right.

There are many tools available for gua aha. The polished horn of a water buffalo is the most common. The open end, if you're wondering, is the working end of the horn.
There are many tools available for gua sha. The polished horn of a water buffalo is the most common. The open end, if you’re wondering, is the working end of the horn.

Cupping has been around for more than two thousand years and is intrinsically linked to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It is a cousin of acupuncture, which is sometimes combined with cupping, and gua sha therapy, which involves scraping the back with an implement, usually the horn of water buffalo.

To fully understand cupping and its related therapies, you have to understand the Chinese concept of qi, or life force, and the fact that the Chinese worldview, including TCM, see reality as the balance, or lack thereof, between two opposing forces (yin and yang).

To understand qi you need to go no further than the Star Wars movie saga. Yoda was the master of good qi, while Darth Vader harnessed bad qi to pursue his villainous goals. Qi is the force.

According to the tenets of TCM, qi flows through the body along meridians, or internal highways. Pain and illness occur when the flow of good qi is interrupted, or, as my Chinese wife refers to it, there is a ‘traffic jam.’

The purpose of all three forms of therapy mentioned above is to clear up the traffic jam, thereby restoring the smooth flow of good qi and overcoming the pain and/or illness.

Most Western commentators described Michael Phelp’s use of cupping therapy as a cure for sore muscles. And that could be the case given that improved circulation and the removal of toxins are considered ancillary benefits of cupping therapy.

It’s use in Eastern cultures, however, is much broader than that.

Here is an explanation from the Natural Pages Therapy website, which bills itself as Australia’s #1 natural health site:

“Cupping can affect the body up to four inches into the tissues, causing the tissues to release toxins, activate the lymphatic system, clear colon blockages, activate and clear the veins, arteries and capillaries, activate the skin, clear stretch marks, and improve the appearance of varicose veins.”

The Chinese also use cupping, as well as gua sha, to cure the common cold and relieve asthma, as well as a host of other common ailments involving chest congestion and/or the immune system.

The point is that while it is effective in curing acute pain, the real benefit is bringing balance to the body, so even if you’re not about to swim the 100m butterfly, it’s considered a relaxing and helpful therapy. Who can’t use more balance in their life?

Cupping is not for everyone; pregnant women, and individuals with skin or blood disorders should not use it. And if you think you can just go on Amazon and buy a cupping set and begin cupping your friends and family, I would caution against that. To do it effectively requires some training since the meridians are best accessed through certain entry points on the body. These are the same entry points normally used by acupuncturists.

And how does it work? About the only thing anyone knows for sure is that cupping is all about creating a vacuum within the glass. Normally this occurs as a result of heating the air inside the cup, normally with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol, before it is placed on the body. As the air cools, a vacuum is created. (A law of physics. Ha, science.)

You can also buy modern cupping kits that create suction through the use of a pump. In China, however, I would guess that the use of heat is still the most common method and the only one I have personal experience with.

Contrary to popular belief, the bright red circle is not a result of ruptured blood vessels. They simply reflect blood that is being pulled to the surface, suggesting it was previously stagnant – a traffic jam, if you will. The spots themselves only last a few days. (Ruptured vessels, I suspect, would last much longer.)

And contrary to what you might think, it doesn’t hurt at all. It’s quite painless. That can’t be said for gua sha therapy, however. That has a bit more sting to it although I wouldn’t describe it as painful. Still, if the idea of scraping your back with the horn of a water buffalo doesn’t sound appealing, you should probably stick with cupping.

As a Westerner I have to admit that I am a little skeptical of claims that aren’t backed up by science. (Some say that cupping is backed up by science but it’s a leap of faith.) The Chinese, however, have made a believer out of me. I won’t hesitate to use any of these therapies.

Again, however, my only advice is that you leave the therapy in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. Red circles, even if Michael Phelps has them, do not a cure make.

And if you do take the leap of faith and try the procedure, you still won’t be Michael Phelps. Trust me on that.

Contact: You may contact the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com