The rise of alternative medical practices in modern sports


Giles Smith, University of Arizona – Michael Phelps, North Baltimore Aquatic Club –  Davis Tarwater, SwimMAC Caroline – USA Swimming, 2012 Olympic Team Trials – Swimming – CenturyLink Center Omaha, Nebraska, June 30 2012. By Aringo CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by one of our passionate writers, Mrs Rachael Everly. The opinions expressed within reflect only the writer’s views and not The European Sting’s position on the issue.

Years ago the world was mired in how safe and effective acupuncture was and how it should be treated. Should it be regulated like mainstream medicines, making practitioners attend a proper training and education before being allowed to practice and who could define proper and adequate “training” in a field which had very little scientific research done on it?

However those who used acupuncture for pain-management were swayed by it and there were conclusive reports of its effectiveness as a pain-management tool. Public opinion was more positive regarding acupuncture when athletes adopted it to deal with issues like back-pain. Now athletes have brought another centuries old alternative medical practice up in the spotlight – Cupping Therapy.

The emergence of cupping therapy in the Olympics

A number of Olympians, including the legendary Michael Phelps have been photographed with red circles on their skAin. These red circles are the sign of cupping therapy.

Swimmers and gymnasts were among those particularly who had signs of cupping therapy.

So what exactly is cupping therapy? There are two ways this is carried out. The more popular form is that a glass cup is place on the body and suction is created by using a hand pump making the glass stick to the body and pulling the skin away. This promotes blood flow.

The effectiveness of Cupping

Athletes say that cupping helps to ease the pains resulting from constant training and also improve their recovery time.  Alex Naddour from the US gymnastics team said that he “swears by it”.  Coming from a professional athlete this is quite the testament of effectiveness.  He adds that he has tried other recovery techniques like sports massages, sauna, ice bath and compression garments but Cupping had the best results.

Practitioners of cupping therapy solidly advocate its effectiveness. And to be honest this has been a practice that has been thriving for over 3,000 years. Having talked about practitioners’ and patients’ point of view, it is impertinent we talk about what the medical science community has to say about the cupping therapy. The medical science community has not yet undertaken studies to prove its effectiveness or otherwise. There have been no clinical trials.

And it is not just the athletes that have pushed cupping therapy into the spotlight. Many actors and actresses over the years have resorted to cupping therapy. Names include A-listers like Jennifer Anniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham, Justin Bieber and Lionel Richie.

Is it being regulated?

After the Rio Olympics 2016 cupping therapy is going to surge in popularity. After all if ideals of peak physical conditioning are advocating it, the common man is going to try it. While there is no harm in trying, it is after all a medical practice and has to be carried out as such ensuring that the patient does not come to harm because of negligence by the practitioner.

In the UK this form of therapy is very popular. Thus there have been calls to regulate it, ensuring that practitioners are sufficiently skilled and trained to carry out a medical procedure.  At the moment there are no rules to govern the practice anyone can set themselves as a practitioner. Some Local authorities in the UK have however stepped up and made it mandatory that clinics offering cupping therapy services register with them.

The future of cupping therapy 

Even before the Rio Olympics people had been using cupping therapy and there is a mainly positive sentiment amongst its users. What should be done is that there should be basic regulations drafted for cupping therapy practitioners, ensuring that essential requirements like hygiene are met and we do not have the same debacle as we had with acupuncture practitioners who were operating out of dingy apartments and re-using needles raising the risk of blood-borne diseases from spreading.



















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