Anyone who has seen Olympic athletes covered in purple spots is familiar with the effects of cupping, a form of alternative medicine that uses suction to mobilize blood flow. We asked experts if you could just have a friend suck on your back for the...
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The Olympic Village has long been rumored to be a temporary crash pad for the world's athletes looking to score. Although an unprecedented number of condoms were delivered to Rio's Olympic Village this year, adrenaline-fueled orgies staffed by the world's fittest athletes isn't what's driving the latest Olympic gossip. This time, it's reports of mysterious red circles.
Since the start of the games last week, multiple athletes have been seen competing with large, round bruises. Perhaps most notably, Team USA swimmer Michael Phelps won the gold medal in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay with a splattering of the dark dots on his back. Twitter proceeded to have a field day, with theories on the origins of the dots ranging from aggressive octopus attacks to make out sessions gone awry.
However, the dots aren't strategic hickeys or subterranean battle scars; they are the product of cupping, a technique that uses cups to suction the skin away from the body. Advocates and practitioners claim that cupping can treat a wide variety of ailments, including: muscular and joint pain, skin problems such as eczema and acne, and respiratory disorders. Athletes, specifically, may use cupping as a recovery tool to treat aches and pains, especially during a rigorous schedule of trainings and competitions.
In their book, Trick or Treatment, authors Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst wrote that cupping "has a long history but there is no evidence that it generates positive effects in any medical condition."
The process, itself, is fairly simple: Heat is created through the lighting of flammable liquid in a glass cup placed over the skin. Once the flame extinguishes, the fast drop in temperature creates a suction process that increases blood flow, supposedly directing blood flow to a specific area to speed up muscle healing. The cupping process seems similar enough to another popular suction-based phenomenon—the process of using your mouth to suck on someone's skin for long enough that small blood vessels beneath the skin begin to burst, causing the round bruise-like marks known as hickeys.
"If you have any blood stagnation where there is pain and you bring that to the surface of the skin, you can relieve some tension in that area," says Erika Weber, a licensed acupuncturist in New York City.
"You probably need a really big mouth and you need to cover more surface area," says Weber. "Unless they have a lot of time and continue to work on it, you won't get the same results as Michael Phelps."
But you may want to rain check on that back-sucking Tinder date night. Cupping and hickeys "are similar in a very limited way," says Noah Rubinstein, the clinic director of the Yinova Center, an acupuncture practice specializing in Chinese medicine.
"Hickeys also bring blood to the surface. But hickeys are a very superficial treatment while cupping is deeper and more therapeutic," says Rubinstein. "Cupping helps release muscles for conditions when we see there is something like tightness or poor circulation. Giving someone hickeys wouldn't do the trick."