by Gerald Epling

Like many other people, I have been watching snippets and pieces of the Summer Olympics as I go through my day.  On August 8th there was a particularly interesting segment on The Today Show with Matt Lauer.  Perhaps, you noticed it too?  The multi-gold medal swimmer, Michael Phelps has been sporting large, dark, purplish circles on his shoulders and back.  These circles are left behind by a process called cupping.

In order to show the world how cupping is accomplished, Matt Lauer offered his arm for a live demonstration.  In this demonstration, a clear cylinder was attached to Lauer’s skin and a slight vacuum was pulled on the cylinder.  This vacuum briefly pulled the skin up into the cylinder.

The moment that this demonstration crossed my video screen, a possible mechanism came to mind.

Cupping is a method of selectively injuring the body.  A slight bruise is formed by the suction pulling on the skin for several minutes.  This injury is noticeable by the bursting of small blood vessels known as capillaries.  These burst vessels are linked to the purple circles on the swimmer’s skin.

Injury is one method of engaging the body’s natural repair process.  When people are burned or have surgery, the body releases primitive cells into the bloodstream.  Some of these primitive cells are less than 2 microns.  Such small cells could transit the blood-brain barrier or easily enter other tissues and organs of the body.  Primitive cells are linked to the body’s natural renewal process.  Here are some of the changes that have been noted by different people, when there is an increase in the number of primitive cells circulating in the bloodstream.

  1. Decreased Recovery Time
  2. Increased Ejection Fraction of the Heart
  3. Decreased Shakiness of the Hands

Michael Phelps found that cupping provided a quick way to recover and relax his muscles. (See the article by Alice Park of Time listed in the Relevant Reading section below.)   According to Alice Park, Phelps discovered that taking 5 minutes for cupping helped him get through his weekly workout schedule.  Some of the changes that Phelps wanted to achieve were accomplished with the help of cupping.  Increased endurance, and reduced recovery time are some of the changes that come with increased levels of primitive cells in the bloodstream.

Cupping is new to many of us.  However, it is well established in parts of Asia where is it used for pain management, and enhancing/improving physical performance.

 

Relevant Reading

What is Cupping and Why Is It Leaving Some Olympians With Spots? by Aug 8, 2016, NBC News.

Why Michael Phelps Is Gaga for Cupping by Alice Park Aug 8, 2016, Time.

Aragona et al (2016). Endothelial Progenitor Cells for Diagnosis and Prognosis in Cardiovascular DiseaseStem Cells Int. 2016

Orlic, D. et al.  Mobilized bone marrow cells repair the infarcted heart, improving function and survival.  Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 Aug 28;98(18):10344-9.