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Rio 2016 Olympic Athletes Highlight the Use of Cupping

Last updated Aug. 15, 2016

Approved by: Maulik P. Purohit MD, MPH

Amy Selleck


You might have been confused watching the Olympic athletes in the Rio 2016 games and noticing the dark red circles located on various parts of their bodies. No, they’re not circular tattoos or perfectly circular bruises. Rather, they are the physical remains of the ancient Chinese practice of cupping.

Cupping therapy involves round glass suction cups that are warmed and then subsequently placed on the parts of the body needing treatment. The glass cup, when placed on the skin, creates a partial vacuum that is thought to stimulate blood flow and the muscles, while simultaneously reducing pain.  Cupping therapy has also gained popularity for treating ailments such as shingles, acne, cough, difficulty breathing, and facial paralysis. 

The United States’ Michael Phelps has proudly displayed his cupping marks when competing in the Olympic games this August, as well as posted clips of the therapy process on his Instagram account.

Despite the significant questions that were raised in response to their appearance at the Olympic games suggesting this was a new trend, these cupping marks have been showcased in previous years on celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston. 

According to a journal article published in PLOS One in 2012, cupping dates back approximately 2,000 years in traditional Chinese medicine. The therapy has also been documented in ancient Egyptian and Greek texts.

Studies have been conducted on cupping’s efficacy in treating lower back pain and cancer pain. In both trials, those who received cupping therapy stated that cupping therapy provided more positive effects in regards to pain relief. However, due to the fact that the studies were just two small trials, definitive conclusions cannot be drawn about its effectiveness in treating pain.

With the lack of significant evidence in mind, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider before undergoing cupping therapy for your ailment.

Primary Reference

Park, M. (2016 Aug 9). Olympics in bright red spots: What is cupping? Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/08/health/cupping-olympics-red-circles/index.html

Additional Reference

Cao, H., Li, X., Liu, J. (2012). An Updated Review of the Efficacy of Cupping Therapy. PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031793  

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Aug. 15, 2016
Last updated: Aug. 15, 2016