Ancient practice flares up
Olympians embrace Chinese medicine to enhance performance
The idea of using cups to help ease pain or speed the healing process may not seem like an obvious choice, but it is gaining in popularity across the country.
The practice was highly noticed over the past couple of weeks as viewers of the Olympics wondered what those round red marks were on the backs of people like swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Alexander Naddour.
It was from an ancient Chinese medicinal practice known as “cupping.”
That’s the practice of using cups to create suction on skin to increase blood flow to muscles or other areas of the body to help in healing or as a deep massage or muscle relaxation therapy.
While the practice may seem new, it isn’t. It dates back thousands of years, said April Schulte-Barclay, clinic director of Healing Horizons Integrated Health Solutions, 2139 N. 12th St.
Schulte-Barclay, an acupuncturist licensed with the Colorado Board of Medical Examiners who holds a master’s degree in oriental medicine from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, said the practice of cupping often is used in conjunction with other treatments, such as acupuncture and herbal treatments.
“It’s not unique to the Chinese culture, but it is one thing that we can do within the scope of Chinese medicine to help with muscular-skeletal pain,” Schulte-Barclay said. “We use it more than for just muscular-skeletal pain. We can use it for various lung conditions such as pneumonia, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asthma, but also skin conditions, like rashes.
“The reason why it works is, what cupping actually does is create suction on the tissue to release what we call stagnation,” she said. “It can be a stagnation of blood. What cupping does is increase the blood circulation through the area, help oxygenate the tissue better and also clear out some of the debris left behind from the metabolic process going on in the muscle fibers. Think of it as a detoxifying approach.”
While the practice of cupping and gua sha, which calls for making minor cuts to the skin between cupping sessions to further stimulate the area, is still being researched, it is considering generally safe when performed by a trained health professional, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Still, the center says there can be side effects if done improperly, and patients shouldn’t rely on it solely or delay more conventional treatments for whatever ails them.
Study after study on the practice over the decades all indicate that while more study is needed, the practice does show promise in treating several conditions, including fibromyalgia, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Acupuncture, acupressure, and cupping could be efficacious in treating the pain and disability associated with CNP (chronic nonalignment pain) or CLBP (chronic lower back pain) in the immediate term,” according to a research article published last year in the Public Library of Science.
“Gua sha, tai chi, qigong, and Chinese manipulation showed fair effects, but we were unable to draw any definite conclusions, and further research is still needed.”
Schulte-Barclay said the practice is not meant to be used by itself.
Patients may start with such things as acupuncture first before cupping is recommended, if at all.
“I’ve been asked if this is a fad, a trend. It’s not. It’s been around for thousands of years. However, just like everything else in Chinese medicine ... it’s important to consider the entire picture of the patient,” she said.
“If someone comes in and they have a deficient constitution or their body is really depleted, cupping may make them feel worse. Cupping is meant to be used for excessive conditions. That’s why we don’t use it alone.”