What is cupping? And why did a Russian TV show say the Michael Phelps-approved practice is like doping?

Mia Steiber 10 August 2016

The black marks on Michael Phelps' back are raising ethical questions.

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If you haven't already noticed, many of the athletes at this year's Olympic Games are walking around with some very strange purply-black marks on their bodies. Most notably, US swimmer Michael Phelps strolled around the pool with a back full of these odd circular marks. At last we've learned that these spots are caused by a practice called cupping.

Cupping is nothing new. In fact, it's probably one of the oldest practices known to modern man. Cupping is an ancient Chinese remedy that has been used to increase blood flow and the flow of qi, the body's natural energy.

Cupping has also been used to alleviate muscle soreness, treat migraines and manage chronic pain among other things. However, the effectiveness and value of cupping cannot yet be officially verified, as the therapy has yet to be tested against a control/placebo group. So we cannot take word of cupping enthusiasts as gospel. That said, many will swear by cupping as a treatment for muscle soreness like Olympian gymnast Alex Naddour and Olympian swimmer Nathan Adrian.

But a Russian television show did not seem too happy about this practice, suggesting that cupping is similar to doping. According to the show, the effects of cupping are somewhat similar to the effect of banned performance enhancing drug, meldonium, which is the very same drug that saw many Russian athletes end up in hot water with the World Anti-Doping Agency. In fact, almost a third of the Russian Olympic team were banned from participating in Rio's Olympics due to doping with this substance.

So is cupping actually anything like meldonium? Is there any substance to these claims out of Russia? Well, not really.

In cupping therapy, a glass cup or cover is place over an area of the body and a vacuum suction is created with the skin. It is this suction and pulling that causes the circular shaped bruises seen on some of the Olympic athletes.

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The suction is created by placing flammable substances like alcohol in the cup and igniting it. Once the fire burns out the cup is placed on the skin, and as the air inside of the cup cools down a vacuum is created. Each cup is left on the skin for around 10 minutes, but can be removed earlier or left on longer depending on the desired results.

Drawing on theory from the Chinese Medicine Meridian System, the body has a natural energy highway and cupping is said to aid in the free flow of energy. Cups are generally applied to specific acupuncture points on the body to increase the flow of qi and to rejuvenate certain meridians (lines of energy) that are not functioning efficiently. Cups can also be applied areas of the body that require specific attention like sore muscles, as cupping is said to activate the lymphatic system and aid in deep tissue repair.

Meldonium on the other-hand is a drug that is used to treat a condition called ischaemia, a lack of blood flow in certain parts of the body. This substance has been abused by athletes who use it to increase their capacity to exercise. Meldonium increases blood flow and allows more oxygen to be carried to the muscle tissue allowing the body to use it's energy more efficiently and aiding in quicker muscle recovery.

The drug ended up on the list of banned substances as of 1 January 2016 after the World Anti-Doping Agency made the decision to include it in September 2015.

So while both cupping and Meldonium both have the ability to alleviate muscle soreness and aid in repair, it's unlikely that cupping has any illegal performance enhancing side effects.

Pictures: Shutterstock

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