Using an Ancient Technique at the Modern-Day Olympics


On Sunday, August 7, a spotted Michael Phelps swam his way to his 19th gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Phelps wasn’t the only swimmer sporting spots—which, by the way, are nearly the size of an Olympic medal. There are a number of swimmers—and other athletes—sporting them at the Olympics as well.

The spots are the result of cupping—an ancient Eastern technique that has gained a new popularity among some U.S. athletes, including quite a few Olympians. Cupping treats muscle pain by applying suction to the skin via heated small glass cups or bamboo jars. Once the cups have suction, they can be gently moved across the skin; the suction causes the skin and superficial muscle layer to be drawn into the cup. According to the Pacific School of Oriental Medicine (PCOM), cupping—which can be used alone or in combined with acupuncture—works like a reverse massage; instead of putting pressure on the muscle, the suction used in cupping uses gentle pressure to pull the muscles upward. Like acupuncture, cupping targets the meridian channels—the paths through which life energy flows freely throughout the body, through all tissues and organs—resulting in a smoother and more free-flowing qi, or life energy.

According to Ted Kaptchuk, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, cupping has been around in the U.S. since the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was a common part of American physician’s treatments; it fell out of practice in the 1920s when it was viewed as old-fashioned.

Does it work? PCOM states that “The suction and negative pressure provided by cupping can loosen muscles, encourage blood flow, and sedate the nervous system.” And, while there is still limited scientific evidence supporting cupping, Kaptchuk says that “what we do have, is that people feel better after it’s done.”

If you have an Olympic-sized—or not-so-Olympic sized—curiosity about acupuncture and cupping, visit the California Acupuncture Board’s website at, where you can find answers to frequently asked questions as well as verify the license of a practitioner before making an appointment.

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