FOTO Rehab Outcomes Blog

Does "Cupping" Have a Role in Achieving High Outcomes?

Written by Selena Horner | Aug 11, 2016 9:30:00 AM

More than bronze, silver and gold dominate the Rio 2016 media discussions. Media focus has also included cupping. Since I am also a swimmer, I was excitedly anticipating watching Michael Phelps compete on Sunday night. Historically, when he competes, he mesmerizes me. I'd describe him as being beauty in motion: the strength, power, and form as he moves through the water is as satisfying to my eyes as smooth chocolate is to my tongue.
When Phelps removed his jacket Sunday night before approaching the blocks, my eyes riveted to his right shoulder. I had flashbacks from my training room days... but the wet sponge suction electrical stimulation never left those kind of marks. I had to immediately "call a friend" and reached out to Mike Hopper on Twitter. He quickly responded that it was cupping. As soon as he mentioned the technique, I remembered reading something about cupping quite a few years ago. I honestly couldn't remember the specific details, but my first impression was, "oh... yup... there really isn't any strong literature supporting its benefit."

Photo credit: nbc4i

Photo credit: instagram/nbcolympics

In the rehabilitation world, we all have high, high pressure to provide efficient and effective services. In the near future, the current fee for service payment model will be obsolete. In its place will be some form of value based purchasing. I can totally understand the uproar among rehabilitation professionals about cupping. 

The one thing that I haven't found is an interview with Phelps asking him why he is cupping during the Olympics this year. The one behavior he seems to consistently have: wearing headphones as he waits for his event. His eyes staring straight ahead, pretty much ignoring anything going on around him. It's almost like he's getting himself into some sort of a zone - pre-competition zone. His head may be filled with visualizing, feeling and focusing on the final end result he wants to achieve. Cupping isn't something I'd call consistent. (I feel confident he didn't use cupping in previous Olympics because I would have noticed.) I'm quite certain he doesn't have a fever (which is one reason for cupping). So, what makes Rio 2016 different?

As with most athletes, you can learn all sorts of things about Phelps online. He made some poor choices in 2014 which affected his ability to compete in 2015. In 2015 he proposed to the love of his life. Now, in 2016, he has a very young son. If we choose to have empathy versus immediately having a trigger reaction about cupping, we may be able to understand Phelps better. I honestly believe cupping had no physical impact on his gold medal finishes. He achieved gold medals far more times without cupping involved in previous Olympics.

What I do wonder... he's worked his tail off returning to the Olympics after "retiring" and after his poor decision in 2014. What was he told about cupping? What other factors involving this procedure may be perceived as helpful to him? Just thinking outloud with rambling thoughts: Maybe he doesn't feel as confident and cupping helps improve his confidence? Maybe this year matters more than all the other years and he thinks cupping gives him an advantage? Maybe being in the training room with all the support staff and other athletes is helpful? Maybe the cupping helps him to maintain his focus? In other words, he may not be receiving cupping because of the reasons in which cupping has been studied. I don't know and may never know. The online world feels quite harsh versus empathetic and curious.

In our own world, we may need to spend some time determining how we will address 1) questions about cupping and 2) demands for cupping. For those of us who have the capability to offer cupping, it is also possible to track outcomes from this procedure. When we do this, we have the opportunity to learn if efficiency and effectiveness are improved with the inclusion of cupping. Very few studies on cupping are of high quality. The majority of the studies are biased.

As you clinically grow and experiment with various procedures and/or modalities, you can use FOTO to easily learn if your outcomes change. Please talk to Judy Holder about how FOTO can help.

Until next time,