By TESS SHEETS
The United States has the world’s most decorated athletes in the Rio Olympics with more than 100 total gold, silver and bronze medals. But, it’s red and purple that caught the nation’s attention soon after the Games began.
We all know by now that those perfect little circles accessorizing the skin of Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps are a result of cupping, an ancient Chinese therapy used to stimulate blood flow and decrease muscle pain.
But what does it feel like? Does it hurt? Does it sting? Will those marks last forever?
The answer to all these questions is no.
I know this because while I was interviewing Marcela Bowie of No Worries Natural Medicine in Indialantic, who performs cupping on her patients, she stopped mid-interview and asked, “Wanna try?”
My answer, of course, was yes. (Side note: If you are ever given the opportunity to look like an Olympic athlete– even if it means bright purple, alien-like circles on your back for an indefinite amount of time– you take it.)
I was pumped. I am Katie Ledecky, I told myself and then immediately texted my mom, “About to get cupped,” with no other explanation.
Here’s the lowdown on cupping from Bowie:
Cupping is most commonly used to treat muscle pain, which explains why we’re seeing so many Olympic athletes covered in dots. The suction sensation stimulates blood flow and can speed up recovery, according to Bowie, a licensed Doctor of Oriental Medicine.
“So, if you have a spot injury or just muscles that have been overworked and, what we call in Chinese medicine, they have blood stagnation, so the blood is stagnant or the muscles are really tense and tight, and you don’t have as much circulation, the cupping will actually help to increase the circulation and in a sense, get the old blood from deep within the muscles to the surface of the skin, so it allows fresh blood to come to that area,” she said.
The technique is performed using glass cups, which are held over the skin while a flame is lit and placed inside the cup. The flame creates a sort-of vacuum, clearing out the oxygen and sucking the skin up inside as the flame is pulled out. Bowie assured me that there’s no pain, and in fact most patients claim to feel muscle relief right away.
“It’s kind of like a reverse massage,” she said.
For individuals with chronic pain or athletes who use the same muscle groups repeatedly, cupping usually becomes routine. “It’s a maintenance thing,” Bowie said.
Cupping can be performed anywhere on the body where there is soreness. Bowie has done it on a patient’s abdomen to help with stomach pain and says gentle cupping can even be used after surgery. She has performed it on a patient as young as 6 years old who had muscle soreness in his back from scoliosis.
Small cups are even available for treatment on the face.
The resulting red and purple marks can last anywhere from 30 minutes to two weeks. The color and longevity depends on the tightness of the muscle, she said.
I removed my shirt and lay face down on the massage table. We began with a quick inspection of my tense muscles and I mentioned that I frequently have lower back pain (probably because of my very aggressive Olympic workouts — kidding.)
Bowie placed eight cups on my back and that was the moment I transformed from Katie Ledecky into the victim of an octopus attack. Nevertheless, a conversation starter.
Traditional Chinese music played in the background.
At one point, the calming mood was killed by the loud slurping sound of a cup that failed to suck up all the skin and popped off my back. Don’t worry, it didn’t hurt.
After all eight were adjusted, Dr. Bowie left the room with the parting words, “try not to move.” Feeling very reassured at this point, I heeded her advice and tried to relax.
I couldn’t feel the exact location of each cup, meaning there was no pinching or pulling sensation in one specific area. Instead, it felt like pressure was being applied. I kept feeling like a stack of books was resting on top of my entire back (not sure why this was my immediate thought or if it’s normal).
My back was getting warmer and I assumed it was from the blood rising to the surface. It was relaxing, no doubt, but I could feel my skin stretching whenever I took a deep breath. It was a little unsettling.
About 10 minutes later, Bowie came back in and gently pulled the cups off. The circles on my back were pink and raised, but she said she didn’t expect them to last more than a couple days (she was right, I was back to normal by day two).
I felt loose immediately, and by the end of the day I noted a some more possible effects:
muscles felt relaxed, similar to the way they feel after a massage;
a couple of the marks were tender to the touch, but others I couldn’t feel at all;
the lower back pain I usually feel at the end of the day didn’t come, but it was hard to tell if this was a result of cupping;
judging by the stares, I assumed people thought I’d been involved in an octopus attack and were not mistaking me for an Olympian. Oh well.
Tess Sheets can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org