If you watched last summer’s Olympics, you may have noticed large red circles on some of the athletes’ backs. Those marks — bruises, in fact — were the result of cupping therapy, an ancient healing practice from Asia that uses cups to reduce muscle pain and increase circulation.

There are many different types of cupping but the basic technique is the same.  The client lies face down on a massage table and the practitioner places cups on the body. Traditionally, cups are heated with an open flame, or a hand pump is used to create a vacuum. When the cup is lifted, red circular marks may appear. The creation of suction is said to enhance circulation and lymphatic drainage, helping tissues process metabolic waste and regeneration.

Aside from promoting muscle rehabilitation and blood flow, many cupping practitioners believe that it can cure various ailments by removing obstructions in the body’s energy pathways. Cupping is said to release “trigger points,” or tissue adhesions under the skin, that can create muscle pain and tension. It’s also used to stimulate the immune system, thwarting colds and flu. Sometimes cupping is combined with acupuncture, a centuries-old Chinese tradition.

Cupping enthusiasts describe the procedure as a warm, relaxing massage-like experience that enhances well-being and reduces stress. But cupping has its share of detractors as well. Some find the technique and its resulting red welts painful.

But does cupping actually work?

Well, like many Eastern medical techniques, it depends who you ask. The scientific community warns that there are no large-scale studies to prove cupping’s effectiveness, and that in some cases where “bloodletting” (small cuts) are involved, it could be downright dangerous.

Some athletes disagree. Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps is said to use cupping before every swimming event. Other swimmers and gymnasts are fans as well. Even stars such as Gwenyth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson use cupping to combat aches and pains.

If you’re interested in trying this time-honored healing technique, be sure to find a trained health professional. Check out local massage therapists, acupuncturists, wellness centers or spas to find a provider near you. Happy cupping!

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