VIDEO: Tracy Briggs tries out Olympics cupping trend
FARGO — The other night as I watched Michael Phelps warm up for his first race at the Rio Olympics, I was startled by what I saw — America's greatest swimmer covered in circular purple bruises.
Oh no. That poor young man must have been the victim of some freak accident — hit by fastballs from pitcher CC Sabathia during the filming of a Subway commercial or something. Or maybe he's just really bad at paintball. (I know of what I speak. I was covered in welts after my one and only try at paintball in the '90s).
But even that seemed weird. If Phelps got in an accident, how is it that his bruises are so perfectly round? He's a swimming Superman, but his capillaries don't know that, right?
Then I noticed the same weird marks on some of the male gymnasts at the Olympics. Clearly, something was going on.
It turns out American athletes have embraced the ancient Chinese healing practice of cupping, in which a warmed cup is placed on sore parts of the body. The placement creates suction that slightly pulls up the skin, which creates bruised marks. (Kind of like a hickey or those girls on the Internet last year who used suction to get Kylie Jenner-like lips.)
Cupping proponents say the suction promotes blood flow to injured areas, relieving tension and pain and in some cases improving range of motion. That's why some swimmers like to cup before a race.
I decided to see for myself what this cupping thing is all about.
Lexi Corwin, an acupuncturist at FM Acupuncture, agreed to perform cupping on me. (Be sure to watch our video to get the full story.) As one of approximately 15 providers of cupping therapy in Fargo-Moorhead, she performs the therapy on about three people every day.
She says it works for a variety of ailments from tension headaches to asthma. The therapy is catching on with college and high school athletes in Fargo-Moorhead. Corwin says many in the Somali community perform cupping on a daily basis.
I was eager to give it a shot after a busy weekend of landscaping at my house. It turns out shoveling dirt and moving rocks is a lot harder on my back than my normal weekend routine of watching "The Pioneer Woman" and making pancakes.
Corwin escorted me into her therapy room where I lay face-down on a massage table as gentle music played in the background. She assessed my trouble spots — my upper back and shoulders. She started by using plastic cups, not her preferred method, but it's portable and durable, so good for use at swimming pools or other athletic events. I felt the cup placed on my back, then a slight pull, just like a pinch. Definitely not painful, just tugging.
By comparison, the glass cups she put on my back later felt more like deep pressure, like Corwin was pressing her thumb into my back. It felt good as the knotted muscle released almost immediately. She also tried something called sliding, where she dragged the suction cup along the length of the muscle. That was relaxing as well.
After about five minutes she removed the cups and I was left with several circular marks — the darkest one was near my left shoulder blade where Corwin said she found the most tension. The place where she slid the cup looked kind of like a shoe print. (Perhaps my tank top-wearing days are done for the summer.)
Despite my bruised appearance, I felt great. It was relaxing. (I was tempted to stay and take a nap on Corwin's massage table. She told me I could, but I think she was just being nice.) As I left, Corwin told me to drink plenty of water to flush out any of the toxins that might have been released as the muscle knots in my body relaxed.
Maybe it was the toxins, but as the day wore on, I started to feel kind of sleepy and maybe just slightly nauseated. (I say only slightly nauseated, as it did not prevent me from having pepperoni pizza for lunch). It turns out those are pretty common side effects.
However, I found the pros of cupping far outweighed the cons. My back felt warm and loose all day. I was surprised that even though Corwin worked on my shoulders, the range of motion in my stiff neck improved. Later on in the evening, my back felt just a little bit sore like I'd had a deep massage. I also had an absolutely fabulous night of sleep.
For the most part, Western medicine still questions the validity of cupping therapy. Research is mixed and some studies suggest the positive results stem from the placebo effect. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, the West has been so unfamiliar with the practice that some Asian and African parents who use cupping on their children have been arrested on suspicion of child abuse.
You have to wonder what some of the African and Asian athletes think of the hubbub surrounding Team USA's recent adoption of cupping. They've done it for 2,000 years.
Now as we jump on the bandwagon and watch our purple-spotted Olympians bring home the gold, we figure if it's good enough for Phelps, maybe it's worth a shot. I plan to go Speedo shopping tomorrow.
• What is it? Ancient Chinese practice of using suction cups to relieve tension and pain. It is also widely used in the Middle East and Africa.
• Who performs it? Some acupuncturists, chiropractors, holistic and alternative medical practitioners.
• How long does it take? It varies, but usually as little as 10 minutes or so.
• Is it painful? If performed by a professional, most people say it is not painful.
• Will I get big bruises? Some people do and some people don't.
• How long will the bruises last? It depends how dark they are. They could fade after a day or two or last up to 10 days.
• How much does it cost? It varies, but local providers are charging approximately $25 to $35 for session.