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This Olympics, an ancient Chinese healing technique has reemerged and taken center stage. Everyone has witnessed the peculiar round markings speckled across Michael Phelps and other swimmers’ bodies. Phelps explained, the marks are residual bruises from cupping therapy.

Cupping therapy is an ancient healing practice derived from China and other cultures. Those in Egypt and Greece also used it. The father of Western medicine, Hippocrates, used cupping for healing structural problems as well as internal disease in the human body.

Other Olympians this year—athletes like Chris Brooks, Alexander Naddour and Sam Mikulak—have benefited from cupping.

Dana Hoffman, a licensed acupuncturist in Chicago, said, “There’s an uptick whenever there’s positive press.”

“Traditional Chinese medicine has been in clinical trials for thousands of years,” she said. “With respect to cupping, it’s not just a Chinese thing. It’s been done all over Asia, Italy. Anybody whose grandmother is from eastern Europe or further east has had cupping done when they were starting to get a cold, every single one. It’s been around forever.”

Lauren Goode, a cupping and massage specialist at Chicago Spine and Sports, said she did not expect Phelps to stand out among athletes with cupping marks “because most of them already know about it, especially runners.”

According to the research of Leonid Kalichman and Evgeni Rozenfeld, two Israeli scientists, it makes sense athletes use cupping—scientific evidence shows dry cupping can indeed reduce musculoskeletal pain.

Chinese medicine uses many healing methods: acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine, diet, qi gong, etc. Initially cupping involved applying cattle horns or cross sections of bamboo to the body to create a negative pressure inside the bamboo or horn. Sometimes the cups were boiled in water before treatment. Other times a fire was ignited inside the cup to expel air, sucking the cups to the skin.

Generally, cupping therapy takes 2 forms: dry and wet. Wet cupping takes the technique of dry cupping a step further and incorporates a form of controlled bleeding.

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One of the largest uses for cupping was treating boils by drawing out pus and blood. While cupping was first used to complement traditional Chinese surgery, it was later discovered that this method could successfully treat diseases on its own.

It is said in China, acupuncture and cupping can cure more than half of the illnesses known to man.

Cupping affects the flow of qi (the same human energy used in acupuncture by stimulation with needles) and the flow of blood. It effectively draws out and eliminates pathogenic factors such as wind, cold, damp and heat, which, in excess or deficit, create disease. This method moves qi and blood and opens skin pores, removing pathogenic energy and toxins, pulling them outside of the body.

Cupping was first mentioned in the ancient silk-scribed book, Bo Shu, found inside a tomb from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

A few centuries later, the famous medical classic, Su Sen Liang Fang, reported the method as an effective cure for chronic cough and a remedy for poisonous snake bites.

The 200 year-old text, Ben Cong Gang Mu She Yi, describes the origins of cupping and includes details on cup shapes.

In the 1950’s, Chinese researchers and acupuncturists from the former Soviet Union, confirmed the medical efficiency of cupping, adopting it as an official therapeutic practice throughout Chinese hospitals.

Today, cupping is used for treating asthma, arthritic symptoms, the common cold, chronic cough, indigestion problems and other ailments.

Perhaps with Michael Phelps and other athletes and celebrities embracing cupping, its popularity will spread and the virtues of other ancient medicines will spread in society.

Cupping may be just one of many traditional methods of healing yet to be rediscovered by modern society.

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Image credit: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil(commons.wikimedia.org)

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