Phelps, other Olympians draw world's attention to cupping

Rob Karwath | August 08, 2016

The technique is centuries old. But after swimmer Michael Phelps and other Olympians used cupping to enhance performance, the world was abuzz about a skill taught at Northwestern.

What were those purplish spots on U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps' arms and back?

After watching the most decorated U.S. Olympian in history swim at the Summer Games in Rio, millions of Americans had that question. But students, faculty and patients at Northwestern Health Sciences University knew immediately.

The spots were telltale signs that Phelps, as well as other Olympic swimmers and gymnasts who appeared competing with the marks, had used cupping to help keep themselves in top condition and enhance their performances as they stepped onto the biggest stage in sports.

Cupping is an ancient health technique developed in China and elsewhere—and taught at Northwestern. It is used widely in this country and around the world to enhance blood flow by placing a suction cup on a specific part of the body, such as the back, the shoulders, the arms and the legs.

When the suction cup is removed, it leaves a purplish mark that looks like a bruise. But that's evidence that the cup has drawn blood to muscles and other tissue. And that enhanced circulation helps with healing, exercise recovery and overall muscle and tissue health.

“It does two things,” said John Pirog, a Professor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at Northwestern. “It greatly expands the larger capillaries in the region and helps get blood flowing. It also causes some of the small capillaries to break, creating something like a bruise without the tissue damage. But the body regards that vicinity as something in need of healing, and all the powers the body uses to heal are mobilized to that region.”

Pirog, who has been teaching cupping for 33 years, said the technique is used to heal “soreness, stiffness and tightness that an athlete would normally experience from training." But he added: "You also would use it for someone with a sore knee or osteoarthritis, as well as for fibromyalgia, where there is tremendous soreness and stiffness up and down the back.”

The health benefits of cupping have been known for ages, and it even has appeared in popular culture before, including a scene in “The Godfather Part II,” Pirog noted. But the technique is seeing a surge in interest lately as acupuncture and Oriental medicine find themselves increasingly in the mainstream, with their benefits recognized as effective, healthy, not invasive and not dependent on drugs or other aggressive techniques that might not pass muster in international athletics.

In many ways, cupping is a perfect technique for helping Phelps and other Olympians achieve naturally their desired outcomes, including quick recovery from heavy and repetitive workouts and performance enhancement, Pirog said. Phelps appears to be convinced. He posted a photo on his Instagram account showing him undergoing a treatment on his thighs, with a caption thanking his health provider "for my cupping today!!!" You can view it as part of the New York Times' coverage about Olympians and the technique.

Acupuncture and related techniques have been in the news quite a bit, in fact, as patients and health professionals have recognized their benefits for a number of conditions. For example, evidence of acupuncture’s ability to slow pre-dementia memory loss was cited in a story in U.S. News & World Report. The use of acupuncture in hospital emergency rooms also was covered in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. And acupuncturists celebrated earning their own occupational code from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, another sign of the growing use and acceptance of their work.

Acupuncture, cupping and other forms of natural healing are taught in the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Program in Northwestern's College of Health and Wellness. For more information, please see the program's information page.

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