Why are so many Olympians turning to cupping?

Prominent '˜bruises' on some of the athletes compete in Rio has put an age old therapy in the spotlight Sophie McCandlish reports.

Evidence of cupping can be seenon American swimmer Michael Phelps's arm. Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Photographs of Olympic athletes sporting round red marks on their skin has put the age old technique of cupping under the spotlight.

A form of acupuncture which has been used in Chinese Medicine for around 3,000 years, the athletes, it is particularly popular with teams from the US, say it helps to ease the aches and pains in their hardworking bodies.

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Cupping is often practised alongside traditional acupunture but it can also be a treatment in its own right, used to stimulate acupuncture points or larger areas of the body.

Teresa Jane Sayed a registered practitioner with the British Acupuncture Council is based at L1 Sports Medicine in L1 Performance on Wellington Place, Leeds, she said traditional acupunture and cupping works to help the smooth flow of energy, known in traditional Chinese medicine as ‘qi’, around the body, and rebalance its equilibrium.

“Blood is a dense form of qi and when we are in pain or unwell then we have an inbalanceof qi.

“Pain is blocked energy and in acupunture we are looking to identify where the energy flow is disrupted and then bring about a smooth, harmonious flow to re-establish balance.”

The Olympic athletes use the technique to help the muscles recover from their punishing performance regimes as it helps increase the oxygen flow to the affected area. Teresa said moving the qi and blood would also bring nourishment to the muscles, tissues and tendons helping recovery.

Traditionally cupping technique involves lighting flammable liquid in a round cup usually made from glass or rubber. Once the flame goes out, the drop in temperature creates the suction which sticks the cups to the body, although many practitioners now use self suction cups.

Several cups are usually used for each treatment.

It is not only athletes who are fans of the treatment, celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Justin Beiber and Victoria Beckham have all been photographed with what look like cupping marks.

But it isn’t just for high performance athletes or A-list celebrities, acupuncture and cupping can be beneficial to general wellbeing.

“Cupping takes tension out of the muscles,” Teresa said.

“I see people who work in offices and hold stress and tension in their bodies particularly their shoulders and upper back. Cupping can get rid of that tension.”

Teresa explained that traditional acupunture is a preventative treatment. Chinese medicine works on a system of pathways around the body and keeping the blood and qi flowing smoothly can maintain health and fitness, not only for athletes for everyone.

Cupping can be used on targeted areas or a method known as sliding cups can be used to treat large areas of the body. To do this a thin layer of massage oil is spread over the skin, with the cups placed onto the body in the usual way and slid along the muscles being treated. This sliding method helps the blood and qi to flow more easily around the area being treated. It also means the practitioner can treat all the way along a pathway.

The British Acupunture Council said the technique does not hurt, although swimmer Michael Phelps has been reported as saying he finds it painful. The red marks left by the cups visible when the swimmers and gymnasts are competing, are what has brought the therapy to wider attention.

Teresa said the marks show the cupping is doing its work as they only appear if there is a lot of stagnant blood and qi.

As well as ‘dry cupping’ there is a method called ‘wet cupping’ or ‘hijama’ which goes a step further and is more commonly practiced in China and some parts of the muslim world.

In this technique the cup is left on the skin for about three minutes, before it is removed by the therapist who makes a series of very superficial cuts on the skin. Then, using a second vacuum cup, a minute quantity of blood is sucked up. The cuts or punctures are then dressed so that they heal quickly.

The theory behind this treatment is that it eliminates toxins and unhealthy materials from the body inducing healing.

There is a stringent code of safe practice for acupuncture and cupping. The British Acupuncture Council is the biggest professional body for qualified practitioners and has a comprehensive list of qualifed therapists across the country. The website also has advice and information on acupuncture.