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Bright Red Olympic “Rings” Explained – What is Cupping Therapy?

  • You may have noticed the bright red “rings” on the shoulders, legs, and backs of some of your favorite Olympians in Rio, and wondered: What is that?

    Athletes are enjoying the benefits of cupping, an ancient therapy that dates back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, China, and Greece.

    Cupping therapy works by suctioning skin, muscle, fascia, and blood vessels into a small vessel, made of glass, plastic, or even bamboo.

    According to Steve Cina, MAOM, Lic. Ac., ATC, NASM CES, faculty member at the New England School of Acupuncture at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS), acupuncture and cupping therapies focus on improving the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

    Cina specializes in integrating Eastern and Western medical approaches for the treatment of orthopedic conditions and pain disorders. Over the past 13 years he has treated numerous patients, from professional athletes to those with chronic and debilitating pain conditions.

    We sat down with Steve to learn more about this therapy.

    Cupping therapy has become a real hot topic at this year’s Olympics in Rio, and it has proven popular with many athletes on Team USA. What are the benefits of cupping therapy?

    Anatomically, cupping works by breaking small capillaries, creating a localized pooling of blood. This focused area of blood is thought to relieve pain and dysfunction of the underlying tissue. It also provides a moderate fascial release and helps muscle fibers and fascia glide better together, thus improving muscle functioning.

    Viewed from a Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) perspective, cupping therapy opens meridians where Qi and Blood might be stagnated or not moving. Stuck Qi and Blood is thought to produce pain and dysfunction. A famous saying in TCM is: “Tong zhi bu tong (If there is free flow there is no pain). Bu tong zhi tong (If there is no free flow there is pain).”

    Since the basis of TCM is to allow the free flow of Qi, cupping can be used to treat a variety of conditions such as pain, colds, fevers, menstrual irregularities, intestinal disorders, insomnia…the list goes on.

    What’s the number one question you receive about Cupping Therapy?

    The number one question is “Does it hurt?” Cupping isn’t painful. Rather, it feels like a pressure or stretching sensation. Some patients really enjoy the sensation, and they find it relaxing. Another question I receive is “how long do the marks from the cupping last?” The marks left from cupping can last anywhere from a few days to 2 weeks, depending on the intensity of the treatment and local stagnation. Once someone experiences cupping they realize how effective it treats their pain and how painless it can be.

    Can you tell us a little about the wear and tear that Olympians experience on their bodies, and how cupping can help them manage pain?

    Olympians focus on training hard, all the while avoiding injury to obtain peak performance. It’s no surprise when they are injured or feeling impaired they turn to whatever method helps keep them performing at peak efficiency. Cupping is one method of many in an acupuncturist’s repertoire to ease pain and improve athletic performance. It doesn’t require expensive equipment, treatments are brief (10-30 minutes), and there is little to no negative side effects.

    Michael Phelps regularly sports the marks of cupping therapy. Will having the most decorated Olympian of all time as a supporter of Cupping will make the therapy more popular?

    It certainly helps! The first exposure of cupping marks at an Olympic event was by a female swimmer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It seems like not only those on the swim team but also gymnasts, including Alex Naddour, who are embracing it this year. Having Michael Phelps leading the way will bring attention to this ancient approach, which will hopefully interest others in trying it for their pain or for athletic performance.

    You have served as team acupuncturist for the Boston Bruins since 2001, and you have also served as team acupuncturist for the New England Patriots. How has acupuncture been embraced by the professional athletic community?

    Professional athletes, including Olympians, are searching for better and faster ways to get back in the game. I’ve had the privilege to work with these teams mostly as the result of their open-minded medical staff, who see the benefit of acupuncture for their athletes. I’ve found most athletes, professional or otherwise, are looking for an edge in their performance, whether they are recovering from an injury or enhancing their ability.

    Are professional athletes knowledgeable about acupuncture and cupping?

    Some are – and some are trying it for the first time and might be apprehensive at first. I’ve found when one athlete is receiving the care, others want to know more about it and often ask if they can get a treatment. Within a team setting, treatments are done in an open space where others are receiving a variety of care. Acupuncture and cupping can quickly draw a crowd and tons of questions.

    Do you find that they are open to new solutions for pain management?

    You can’t find a more open bunch of people than athletes looking to compete at the highest level of performance.

    How much of your role focuses on educating athletes of the significance of acupuncture and cupping therapy?

    I’d say it’s the role of every acupuncturist to be well versed in answering questions about the work, since it’s still relatively new in the US. NESA is the oldest acupuncture school in the country and is only 40 years old! Some athletes prefer to hear about how acupuncture or cupping works from a Western medical perspective while others prefer to know more about the “energetics” or Chinese medicine perspective. Either way, it’s important to wear both hats when necessary, something we train our students to be well versed in.

    When do the student in the Master of Acupuncture program at NESA at MCPHS begin practicing acupuncture and cupping?

    In the first semester, which isn’t the norm among most schools of acupuncture in the U.S. We find it’s imperative to begin developing these skills in the first semester, so the student is well prepared to see patients at the end of their second year.

    How do your students practice?

    Students first apply cupping to themselves using a handheld vacuum pump, then practice the technique on each other. Students are also trained in “fire cups,” a method of cupping which can produce a stronger suction effect. As the method implies, a flaming cotton ball soaked in alcohol is lit, which is then applied to the inside of a glass or bamboo cup, heating the air inside the cup. When the cotton ball is removed from the cup, it is immediately placed on the patient’s skin, usually their back, where the air in the cup cools providing a suctioning effect. Another method is “wet cupping,” where the skin is pierced with a lancet prior to applying the cup to drain a small amount of blood from the area. Each method has its indication and used for a specific effect.

    The New England School of Acupuncture at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) is the largest acupuncture school operating within a regionally accredited health sciences university. Discover our degree programs in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine at one of our Information Sessions on our vibrant Worcester campus.