How cupping works
Michael Phelps may have earned his 23rd round medal at Rio recently, but it was the round marks on his back — and on the body parts of fellow Olympians — that have earned raised eyebrows at the 2016 Games. The New York Times compared Phelps to a Dalmatian
; the Dallas Morning News described the crimson circles
“as if a school of large catfish had latched onto his skin underwater and left him with hickeys.”
By now, everyone knows that the purple dots are a result of cupping. And according to the Washington Post
, it was big with top-level athletes long before Phelps brought it to our attention. Far from a new trend, it's actually an ancient form of alternative medicine that uses suction to improve blood flow, reduce soreness and speed healing. For Olympians who bounce from event to event like Ping Pong balls, cupping can be a quick way to recuperate for the next bout.
After hours of watching Rio 2016
swimming, the only soreness I felt was in my eyeballs, and maybe in my heart. (Hubba-hubba, Ryan Lochte!) Still, as an athlete myself, I was curious to experiment with the practice. Would it relieve my chronically stiff muscles, the result of too little stretching? Would I emerge like a spotted salamander?
I soon found myself face down on a table at Elemental Massage Therapy
, a new studio owned and operated by Lisa Tomasik on Williston Road in South Burlington. “Cupping can be beneficial to almost anyone,” she told me before our 15-minute session began. “It’s very relaxing and helps anxiety and depression, and can help respiratory conditions. It’s all done by mobilizing blood flow. And cupping can help day-to-day muscle aches and pains for the common person, not just athletes.”
That sounded promising to me, as did the soothing spa music that Tomasik turned on as background noise. While I stared down through the massage table at a rock emblazoned with the word “relax,” she lightly kneaded my back muscles with her hands, explaining how cupping makes it easier to get to the deeper muscles than using her own strength and body weight.
“It is like getting a hickey, by creating suction,” Tomasik said. “But cupping allows more controlled suction — and is more sanitary.”
My last question was about unusual reactions. “Some people say it itches in the area where the cups are placed,” said Tomasik, who then placed two rows of cups across my latissimus dorsi. It felt warm and soothing, similar to a hot stone massage. Even when she began pulling and gliding the cups, the sensation was closer to relaxing on the Copacabana beach than getting a Brazilian bikini wax.
Then I panicked. I had a wedding to go to in London in three days. What would my family say if I showed up looking like a walking polka dot? But that night, my kids assured me there were no marks. Now, they wondered, could I win as many medals as Michael Phelps?
Thanks to Kerry Jenni at Montpelier's Integrative Acupuncture for this story idea.