Med thumb cupping 2

The five interlocking Olympic Rings aren't the only circles worth noting at this year's games in Rio. Thanks to Michael Phelps and other Olympians, the round purple marks left on athletes' skin from cupping, an alt-massage therapy, are grabbing attention and sparking curiosity. The "ancient Chinese healing practice," as the New York Times pointed out, "is experiencing an Olympic moment."

As alt-medicine goes, cupping purportedly eases pain, loosens knots and aids injury recovery in an opposite manner to that of traditional massage therapy. And if the bruises from cupping look like huge, uniform love-bites, there's a reason: Cupping is basically a systematized version of hickey-administration. And some say it helps relieve insomnia. 

Rather than press on and palpate sore muscles, cupping practitioners apply round silicone cups to the surface of the body (in Phelps' case, his legs), and use either heat or pressurized air to suction patches of skin upwards and away from the muscle. The process, which only takes a few minutes, causes capillaries to burst, leaving dark, round and hard-to-miss bruises on the skin.

There's some evidence that traditional massage therapy can help defeat insomnia. So it might make sense that cupping therapy is the yin to the masseur's yang.

A slew of big-time athletes (and other celebrities) tout the wonders of cupping, but the jury's out on whether or not the technique confers legitimate physiological benefits. The Times quoted one Israeli doctor, Leonid Kalichman, who believes cupping to be more than snakeoil. "It may be that cupping, by causing local inflammation, triggers the immune system to produce cytokines, small secreted proteins released by cells," said Kalichman to The Times.


Thanks @arschmitty for my cupping today!!! #mpswim #mp 📷 @chasekalisz

A photo posted by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on

Then again, other experts suspect that reports of bodily restoration, relaxation and recovery are merely placebo effects. The scientific evidence for cupping as a means of preventing or treating pain and injury is thin. A 2015 review paper on cupping therapy cites instances of its use for 1001 different ailments, including mental disorders, migraines and fatigue. But poorly designed studies and murky results leave us with little-to-no proof of clinical efficacy.

The Times story mentioned two recent-ish studies in which participants who cupped reported greater relief of chronic pain and arthritis (respectively) than members of non-cupping control groups. But, those studies weren't blinded, meaning that participants knew whether or not they were undergoing skin-suctioning. The results of non-blinded studies are particularly vulnerable to the placebo effect.

And what about cupping therapy's possible insomnia-solving prowess? There's some evidence that traditional massage therapy can help defeat insomnia. So it might make sense that cupping therapy is the yin to the masseur's yang.

Again, the science is limited, to say the least. A research scan unearths one 2010 study on acupuncture and cupping (sometimes considered an acupuncture technique) for treating insomnia in Chinese college students. Again, the treatment group fared better than the control group. But, the paper, which was published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine, focuses more on the needling component of the regimen over the cupping, and doesn't say much about why cupping itself might improve insomnia.

"Besides, moving cupping can stimulate the Bladder Meridian and Jiaji points to regulate the functions of zang and fu organs and provide tranquilization and allay excitement," study authors wrote. 

Outside the world of peer-reviewed research, plenty of online forums promote cupping as a way to defeat insomnia, although often in conjunction with acupuncture needling. Still, the praise skews shallow — it's hard to find concrete explanations of why cupping would facilitate rest. A few first-person reviews — here's one — don't do the technique any favors. 

So, here's what we know: The pro-cupping team boasts a persuasive roster: Phelps, Olympic gymnasts, college swim teams, Jennifer Aniston, all of whom may be feeling the effects of a valid treatment method or total hooey. It's unclear. But cupping as a sleep treatment? Probably not worth the giant hickeys.