How cupping works and why Olympic athletes use it?

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World-class athlete and current 100m and 200m sprint Japanese record holder Chisato Fukushima’s acupuncture patches have received international attention after she completed the Olympic 200m sprint last Monday in Rio. She describes them as expanding her range of motions, making her feel as though she was in a hot spring while running.

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Though gold medalists Rebecca Adlington and Michael Phelps in particular have received attention for their acupuncture and cupping treatments, they can’t be dismissed as quirky athletes: in fact, these practices are surprisingly common. In the wake of scandals surrounding doping, it’s no wonder that professional athletes turn towards more natural pain and management solutions that don’t involve drugs. In fact, cupping and acupuncture not only help ease tensions and pain, but many professional athletes report that these practices help them expand their range of motion, and give them the psychological edge so necessary for high level performance.

Olympians who’ve submitted themselves to these therapeutic approaches include wind-surfer Yin Jian, snowboarder Mark McMorris, swimmers, sprinters, and even high jumper Amy Acuff[1]; though most popular among Chinese athletes, adherents to the practice include Canadian, American, British, Japanese and Australian competitors, among others. Outside the Olympics, prominent boxers, football players, gymnasts and rugby players and other athletes have also turned to cupping, which is often described as similar to a deep tissue massage.

Q: What is cupping?

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Michael Phelps

A: An ancient Chinese practice, cupping is a practice that uses suction cups to lift fascia and muscles, easing tensions, and that temporarily increases blood circulation. There are lots of cupping techniques, but the most prominent ones are stationary cupping, where the cups are left on the skin; cupping massage, where they are soothingly glided across the skin; and flash cupping, where they’re quickly removed then moved to another area. Also of note is the difference between wet cupping, where an incision is made in the skin prior to placing a cup, and dry cupping, where it is not; dry cupping is vastly more popular than wet cupping in the West. Of course, these techniques can all be used in the same treatment.

Q: How can it help athletes?

A: Cupping’s ability to deeply and effectively relax muscles allows athletes to increase their flexibility and to relieve soreness, aches, and tensions that keep them from extending their muscles to their fullest. It is reported to also help accelerate the immune response to injury by causing a minor irritation; in any case, blood rushes to areas on which cups are applied, increasing circulation to that area.

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