Why Team USA Athletes Are Crazy for Cupping Therapy

If you can’t peel your eyes from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, you are not alone. Which means you most likely have noticed the dark circular spots on some of Team USA’s backs by now. What in the world, you ask? It’s actually cupping therapy, an ancient Chinese healing technique.

To further understand why Team USA athletes like Michael Phelps, Alex Naddour, and Natalie Coughlin are obsessed with this odd-looking treatment, we tapped Joel Granik, licensed acupuncturist and co-founder of Floating Lotus in New York City. 

What is cupping?
Cupping is a useful, natural treatment for issues all around the body, especially for pain, soreness, and injuries.

Can you describe what actually happens during the treatment?
The traditional way of cupping is to use fire to burn up all the oxygen in the glass cup so a vacuum is created to suck the skin into the cup. The more modern approach, which I use, is to use a vacuum pump to suck the air out of the cup. Both are equally useful. The suction separates the skin from the fascia and muscle underneath it.

When the body undergoes an injury, whether major or minor (which athletes undergo on a daily basis), the body is not effective at clearing debris like dead tissues, old fluid, and stagnant blood when it heals. That area becomes sore, painful or arthritic over time. Cupping pulls that stagnant blood, fluid and dead tissues from between to the cells to the surface, which the body flushes out over the next couple of days.

What makes the red circles appear?
The red welts are also a local inflammation, which signals the body to produce more cytokines, an important type of protein the body uses to turn the immune system on and off.

Why are Olympic athletes so obsessed?
Athletes enjoy it because it helps the body heal naturally. Many athletes also suffer from chronic pain from their training. With cupping, one treatment will produce immediate reduction in soreness and pain, and repeated treatments produce long term sustain reduction in pain.

About those red marks, how long do they last?
The marks usually last 3 days to a week. The suction part can hurt, but it does not hurt post-treatment.

How often can you partake in cupping?
If you’ve had any major or minor injuries, chronic pain, or even arthritis, weekly treatments are advisable. Olympic athletes that train daily can cup daily. It’s best to consult an expert to determine the frequency as every patient and injury is different.