If you’re a swimming fan and have been following the Olympics, you may have noticed purple circles on the backs and shoulders of some of the star swimmers.
Most noticeable were those on Michael Phelps, who has bagged the largest number of medals, 23 in total, in Olympian history.
Were they bruises? Were they some kind of skin disease?
Nope, they are the marks resulting from “cupping,” a medical practice that probably emerged independently of each other in various parts of the world. The practice is described in the Ebers Papyrus, said to be one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, dating back to around 1550 BC. Hippocrates describes its use around 400 BC. The practice is also found in Chinese medicine and Islamic medicine.
And now we see it being used in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
A vacuum is created inside a cup usually through heat—lighting a match is the most common practice—and then the cup is put on the body. A more dramatic version is to use forceps to soak a piece of cotton in alcohol and then lighting it up. The flame is introduced into the cup and quickly removed, and then the cup is applied to the body. As the air inside the cup cools, it sucks up the skin. The cup is left for a few minutes and after it is removed, the cup’s rim leaves a mark. The cupped area also becomes red, eventually becoming purple.
Most medical practitioners still dismiss the practice as pseudoscience, but it is becoming popular with athletes, swimmers in particular, with claims that it can treat pain, muscle knots and swelling by moving “stagnant blood” that has accumulated in the body.
Cupping increases blood circulation especially in tiny capillaries, but the effect may not necessarily be beneficial because the blood vessels could rupture. Critics also claim that there are risks of burns and scarring in the cupped part, but the practice continues to spread, taking different forms.
Cupping seems to break down muscle fiber as well, especially if the cup is moved from one part of the body to another. This might explain its appeal with athletes, who feel muscle knots loosening up. In fact, this “moving cupping” seems to be the latest variety, with massage oil rubbed on the body and the therapist gliding the cups over specific muscle groups. This is said to be safer than leaving the cups in one place for an extended period.
Although still called cupping, there are all kinds of objects used. In Finland, cupping is done in saunas and traditionally, they use cattle horns. A modern adaptation is to use suction bulbs that look like breastfeeding pumps. That’s probably safer than lighting a match inside the cup before applying it.
The Chinese explain cupping’s benefits as resulting from the promotion of the flow of “qi” (pronounced chi) which may have stagnated. The concept of stimulating qi flow is the same principle used for acupuncture, so it is not surprising that the Chinese sometimes combine cupping with acupuncture.
Another Chinese traditional medical practice is called moxibustion; this involves burning an herb called mugwort (our very own damong maria) and applying it close to the skin. The old way was to make a small cone out of the herb and put it on ginger, which is then applied to the skin. These days you can buy mugwort rolls with a skin adhesive so you don’t have to bother with the ginger. Again, the principle is that of heat being used to increase blood flow near the skin surface.
I suspect that the western interpretation of “stagnant blood” may have come from Chinese traditional medical practitioners’ concept of qi flow. The Chinese use cupping to treat musculoskeletal problems, as well as respiratory diseases like colds and pneumonia.
I’ve described fire cupping and moving cupping, but there’s still another method used in Islamic medicine, described as al-hijamah or “medicinal bleeding” and “wet cupping.” Right after cupping, small skin incisions are made, which leads to bleeding. A cup is then reapplied to suck up the blood.
When I shared the story of Olympian cupping with a Cebuana anthropology professor, she laughed. “Ay pa kaping kaping. Bintusa lang gyud.”
Bintusa comes from the Spanish word ventosa, which means cupping. So you can see how the practice may have gotten to the Philippines. The term may have changed in pronunciation, but the principles are still the same, all the way up to the idea of muscle knots—described locally as “naiipit na ugat”—being relieved. Not surprisingly, ventosa and cupping are also offered now in many of our spas and massage parlors.
And that’s where I worry. There are some internet postings of people who had improper ventosa done in the spas, leaving ugly red wounds and scars. There is a very real risk of infection here because if the skin is burned, and dirty cups or glasses are used, you are treating armies of bacteria to a boodle feast. Banish the thought then of becoming another Michael Phelps.
The global spread and adaptations of cupping show how the distinctions between “western” and “oriental” medicine are becoming useless because we are in fact seeing all kinds of medical systems borrowing concepts and practices from one or the other.
All said, it’s the human craving for remedies, especially from physical pains, that makes us so open to novel and exotic practices. Whatever the form of cupping, the heat seems to relieve pain and bring comfort, and that’s what makes it so acceptable to people—be they top Olympian swimmers or lowly folks living in a remote village on one of our islands.
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