When the gold medal is on the line, Olympians will try anything to get results. The latest rave making its mark in Rio is “cupping,” an ancient Chinese therapy meant to increase circulation, alleviate pain, and, some say, sedate the nervous system. The treatment– often performed in tandem with acupuncture– involves placing suction cups on sore muscles, deriving its name. The cups are placed upon the body through various methods that effectively lift the top layer of skin and superficial muscle through the circular, suctioning cups.
Team USA members Michael Phelps and Alex Naddour (gymnastics) have popularized the treatment, sporting the tell-tale red polka dots on their backs, arms, and legs. Olympic Gymnast Alexander Naddour told USA Today that cupping has “been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy. It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.” Naddour added “Our bodies are going to hurt after doing this for so long. It’s the best thing that I’ve ever had. It has saved me from a lot of pain.”
Pavel Sankovich, a swimmer from Belarus, has also spoken out on social media about the pain-reducing technique, posting an Instagram picture with the caption “Cupping is a great recovery tool.” Natalie Coughlin, who swam for the U.S. in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympics, has also posted pictures of herself receiving cupping treatments.
While the cupping trend seems to just be reaching Olympic athletes and Hollywood stars– Lena Dunham, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston have all endorsed cupping– it has a rich history and many contemporary consumers. The treatment is widely used in China, where it was established as an “official therapeutic practice” in the 1950s and remains popular, in both hospitals and traditional Chinese medical centers.
Many historians date the practice back to 3000 BCE; written records of cupping come from The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus (around 1550 BCE), one of the first medical “textbooks,” and Hippocrates describes using cupping to treat muscle problems and internal disease.