Thursday, March 23, 2017
What do Michael Phelps, Olympic swimming medalist, six Minnesota Timberwolves players and Ian Kennedy, a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, have in common?
One thing is that these athletes exhibited the round red bruises that are marks of cupping.
After Phelps and Kennedy showed up with bruises or reddish splotches in a polka-dot pattern on their bodies, the stories hit the news. Cupping was identified as a traditional Asian therapy. This alternative medicine treatment is being used by a handful of major league athletes.
In that treatment, a glass cup is applied to a particular muscle and heated, which creates suction, which lifts the fascia and skin from the muscle. That’s what causes the bruises. Proponents say it helps increase blood flow and helps tired muscles recover more quickly.
Cupping is also an old Finnish tradition. I first learned about cupping when interviewing Finns about sauna and health. A number of older folks had experienced remarkable health reversals after cupping treatments followed by sauna — though one man barely hobbled into the sauna, a skilled kupperi (person who heals with cupping) enabled him to walk out easily.
When writing “Some Like it Hot,” the descendant of a kupperi sent me an unused cow horn that long ago had been hollowed out, trimmed and otherwise prepared for cupping.
She explained that a balloon would be inserted inside the horn. A small incision was made in a patient’s back, and the balloon/horn assembly placed on top. Then they'd enjoy a good hot sauna. As I understood, the horn suctioned the patient’s circulating blood which gradually filled the balloon.
This drawing gives you a sense of it.
If you are skeptical about how useful this treatment might be, remember that Phelps brought home 5 gold medals and 1 silver from the Rio Olympics.