As I sat down to write this blog, I was struck by the idea of why certain things become popular or gain legitimacy. Malcolm Gladwell describes the magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold and begins to spread like wildfire in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Still, it seems rare to witness such an event actually taking place and even more difficult to predict these “moments.” For example, most of us probably never envisioned the 2014 A.L.S. ice bucket charity challenge becoming such a meteoric sensation. But while recently watching the Olympics, I think I did notice something that I anticipate will be the next big health craze — cupping.
Why Are So Many Olympians Sporting Large Purple Circles?
I can’t remember which athlete it was or even what sport it was, but I recall thinking, “That person has a perfectly symmetrical, circular birthmark.” Shortly afterwards I concluded that there were a lot of Olympic athletes with circular birthmarks.” Odd. After quickly dismissing this idea as being highly improbably, I decided that I must be witnessing a new craze among elite athletes — circular tattoos. But there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to where they appeared, and many folks were sporting more than one. Upon doing a little research I soon discovered these skin discolorations were actually signs of “cupping.”
An ancient Chinese healing practice with an international association, cupping involves placing specialized cups on the skin, and then, either using heat or an air pump to create suction between the cup and the skin. Physiologically, cupping is thought to draw blood to an affected area, reducing soreness and speeding healing of overworked muscles.
I read that most people have heard about cupping, but I was skeptical I started asking people of varying ages and genders if they were familiar with cupping. Only one person said they had heard of it, but admitted having just learned of it over lunch on the same day I asked the question — and it was in reference to the Olympics.
Has Cupping Just Moved From Obscurity To Mainstream?
Reputable news media outlets (e.g., BBC, CNN, The Wall Street Journal) are all carrying stories about cupping, thanks in large part to the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, Michael Phelps, being photographed with his circular bruises. But Phelps is not alone in advocating cupping as a great recovery tool, nor is he the first. In fact, the author of this article, Sopheng Cheang, writes, “I sported those purple round welts on my body long before Michael Phelps was born.” This may be true, as is the fact that celebrities (e.g., Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow) were noted as being fans of the therapy back in 2013. And despite a Chinese Olympic swimmer having been photographed (more than eight years ago) with distinctive suction cup marks all over her back, it took a non-Chinese person (i.e., Michael Phelps), performing on the biggest stage, to suddenly legitimize this ancient therapy.
Undoubtedly, as the world tunes in to watch the Olympics over the next two weeks, more people than ever will get clued into the concept of cupping. And you can bet, despite there not being any substantive medical evidence of its benefits or proof that it’s harmful, we may soon see cupping become the latest health fad. The likelihood that Phelps will be offered an endorsement deal from some do-it-yourself cupping device is as probable as his image appearing once again on a Wheaties box. However, speaking as someone who once owned a Nordic Track (the must-have fitness machine of the 1980s and 1990s), as well as the proud owner of a juicer and Ab Lounge Ultra currently collecting dust in my basement, I have no interest in becoming the latest victim of yet another unproven healthcare fad. After all, if cupping really worked, wouldn’t insurance companies and Medicare be willing to pay for it?
Rather than be tricked by soon-to-be aired late-night infomercials touting the benefits of cupping, I instead plan to put a do-it-yourself cupping device on my Christmas list. Better yet, perhaps one of my colleagues (e.g., Ed Miseta), might acquire said cupping kit and let me do a free trial. While I suspect many will soon fall for the coming cupping craze, seeking product reviews, such as this page which has a cupping set that looks very similar to the one pictured being used on Phelps, don’t fall for imitations. Here you can see a close up picture of the AcuZone product being used on Phelps, as well as a video of the procedure — thanks NBC!
But before rushing to Amazon to acquire your own cupping kit, please take the time to read this article in the Atlantic. Sure, cupping is probably not going to hurt you, other than the pain caused by the procedure (and perhaps making your wallet a little lighter). To me, however, cupping represents the latest example of a much bigger problem — society’s susceptibility to latch onto inexpensive (yet unproven), quick healthcare fixes which can be brought to market with hardly any barriers. Yet, when a biopharmaceutical company spends billions on getting a drug approved by the FDA, we often balk when asked to pay the price.